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!
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 had flashbacks when I overheard his phone conversation. “I lost the key.” Being within unintentional cellular eavesdropping range has been a feature of public life for twenty years; it just stood out more because it hasn’t been happening as much during lockdown.
My husband and I were sitting at a concrete picnic table in our local park, masks on, reading. We had both noticed the daddy with the tiny daughter, maybe three years old. He had been letting her play with his keys and now it looked like that wasn’t such a great plan. We watched as they started wandering around, looking at the grass.
This was really a high drama day at the park. Only moments after we sat down, a little boy fell out of a tree a few hundred yards away. An emergency crew came, and he eventually walked away with his arm in a temporary sling.
All this is to say that it wasn’t the best day for concentrating on a book. I kept looking up to see how it was going with No Keys Daddy. I felt for him.
I dropped my keys down an elevator shaft one night. It’s been fifteen years and I’m still scarred. See, I had locked my phone and my purse inside my car while I made a quick trip to my storage unit. (This is also part of why I hate storage units). I got someone to let me use their cell phone to call the number on the elevator, but it was after hours and nobody answered.
I tried slipping various objects under the crack in the elevator door at the bottom of the shaft, including a yardstick and my unrolled yoga mat, to no avail.
I considered walking across town to go home, but my roommate worked evenings and nobody would be there to let me in. I would still be stuck with the problem of my locked car sitting in front of my storage unit. I’d have to figure out how to get to work the next morning and then come back and figure out how to get my keys during business hours.
There was plenty of time to think just how much depended on this one small object, my keychain.
And then the succession of other important objects. My keychain, my phone, my wallet (to pay for a cab). Without my phone I didn’t even have a way to call anyone, because I quit memorizing phone numbers back around 1995.
I sat in the cold, with a full bladder, waiting to get the attention of the facility manager who had a little house onsite. I waited there for 45 minutes. But she did arrive, and she did drive right up to me to see what I needed, and she did unlock the door and help me get my keys.
After that night, I got together every object I had that resembled or would attach to a keychain, including a bottle of hand sanitizer, until my keys were about the size of a soda can. Every time I walked by a storm drain or anything else with a crack, I gripped my keys until my knuckles turned white.
Now I have them clipped to a large carabiner. I clip that to my bag. It’s convenient, I always know exactly where my keys are, and I can use the clip to punch elevator buttons.
I thought about all this while I watched the daddy wandering around looking for his key.
It was easy to see what was happening. He couldn’t get into his car, so he was waiting for his wife to finish work and come pick them up. He seemed to be taking it well... the little girl was happily romping in the grass, no stress in her young life!
I’m really good at finding things, so I discreetly got up and wandered around for a bit where these two had been playing. Maybe I could find the key?
The grass had been freshly mowed, it was quite short, and it didn’t take long to realize that if there were keys here, they would be easily visible.
Not outside the realm of possibility that a crow flew off with them?
Then I wondered. He did say ‘key,’ not ‘keys.’ Was it possible that this man just put a single key in his pocket? And left the house that way?
I saw him glancing into his backpack. He did not do what I would do, which is the method I teach my students when they can’t find their stuff.
Sit down and spread out a piece of fabric, a towel or even a shirt. This is so nothing gets lost (loose pill, earring backing) or bangs up the furniture. Then methodically take out each object in the bag, one at a time, and lay them out in a grid. Throw away any trash. When the bag is empty, turn it upside down and shake all the crumbs out.
What usually happens is that the lost object is loose in the bag. Every single time, *every* single time, my person will say, “I already looked in there twice!” Yet there is their missing ID, parking lot voucher, or whatever else they thought they had lost.
This is what I thought: I bet the key is in the bag somewhere. I also thought: He’s been a daddy long enough to realize that tiny kids are predictable in a lot of ways. If you give them scissors, they will either cut off a chunk of their hair, or someone else’s. If you give them crayons, they’ll scribble on the wall. If you give them chocolate, they will smear it. Why would you give your keys to a chaos muppet?
At the park?
I thought about dropping my keys down an elevator shaft, and how that cost me an entire evening of complications, and yet how much easier they were to find than they would be in five acres of greenery.
This is why Being Organized is so much better than the default.
Literally one single habit - keeping your keys on a clip - can prevent untold hassles over and over again.
This sort of habit is much more important for parents of young kids, who probably haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in several years and who can hardly be blamed for the full spectrum of shenanigans each day.
Ultimately, though, as adults we can keep it all in perspective. The little girl was fine, unlike the boy who fell out of the tree and wound up in a sling. They were a little family, able to call for help and know they would be taken care of. The tiny tot will probably remember nothing more than a warm fuzzy blur of going to the park with daddy, no inkling of the havoc she had wreaked.
Why let a paltry missing object disrupt all that?
(Which is why I have my keys on a clip, the end).
If you’re looking for a clutter book, they tend to come in three types. There’s the type written by the ‘born organized’ person who loves label makers; there’s the reformed hoarder; and then there’s the seen-it-all professional who has clearly borne witness to all kinds of family drama. Peter Walsh is that third type. Let It Go is the book to get if your struggle with clutter is easy compared to the struggle over it with your relatives.
By the way, that first type of organizer? Is a lot like a young trainer at the gym who has never had an injury or carried extra weight. They may have studied hard and they may have a lot to offer, but there’s a certain level of emotional connection that may not happen.
What distinguishes Let It Go from other clutter books is that it has guidelines for how to have certain types of discussions with family in specific situations. Walsh even offers some personality types that are relevant in all scenarios, not just dealing with clutter, and will undoubtedly provoke some amusing reactions. This may be a “mind blown” perspective shift for a lot of people who know their family makes them crazy, they just aren’t sure exactly why.
Any organizing book can tell you to sort your stuff, toss some, and donate the rest. These books are very helpful for the literary type who aren’t hindered by emotional attachments but more by executive function issues, like categorizing or sorting what “belongs” in which room. This book stands out because it has so much solid advice on, frankly, negotiating with the family wingnuts.
I’ve been thinking about clutter and minimalism lately because a friend of mine finally called me for coaching after a three-year standing offer. Why? Her elderly dad is coming to visit for the first time in many years, and she wants to impress him. It wasn’t getting evicted for failing her habitability check that did it; it wasn’t the offer of free help; it was love. This is what we should keep in mind when we sort our stuff: Who are we doing it for, and are we as careful to preserve the stories as we are the heirlooms? Are we keeping the right legacy alive?
Many items you need to shed are firmly glued to you with a sticky layer of memories, sadness, anxiety, and guilt.
Always remember that the stuff you own influences how you think.
Early in lockdown, I almost bought $300 worth of shoes. They were seriously on sale!
I never buy stuff right away, though. I put together a shopping cart, and then I go through it again the next day. Most of the time I scrap the whole thing. I’m an under-buyer and I usually feel major buyer’s remorse when the physical item shows up.
This time was different. I had these shoes in the cart, and then I thought, where would I wear them??
Months later, this feels prescient. Indeed, where would I wear a variety of new shoes?
I actually hate wearing shoes, at all, at any time. I am obviously barefoot as I write this. I only wear shoes because I don’t want to cut up my feet when I go outside. (Although I did once step on a nail that went right through my shoe, fat lot of good that it did me).
Purses are in the same category of Stuff I Only Use Outside. I put my work bag in my closet a few months ago, and it’s only come out a few times. I don’t miss it at all. I used to hang it on my desk chair, but it won’t stay on my new office chair, and it would annoy me while I work all day for no reason.
Not only am I not contemplating buying any purses or shoes, I’ve been thinking of getting rid of more of what I already have.
I have a donation box going right now. I have yet to drop it off because I rarely cross the threshold of our apartment for any reason. I don’t want to carry it off only to realize I need to make a second trip. There is a pair of shoes in that basket right now. I liked how they looked, but they gave me blisters. I would wear them on vacation and get mad at them. Then I would unpack them and forget that these were Hurty Shoes. Then I would pack them the next time we went on vacation, and the cycle would repeat. Finally, as I was doing the classic self-isolation closet re-org, I pulled out the Hurty Shoes and said, “Never again!”
The next time we go on vacation, it’s going to be so exciting, the last thing I will want to do is to mess it up by giving myself blisters.
There are a couple other pairs in my closet that are a little tight. Why do I still have them?
I instituted a practice in my life over 20 years ago. That was the concept of the “cost per wear” that I picked up from Your Money Or Your Life. (If you buy something for $20 and you wear it 20 times, it costs $1 per wear). In my mind, I still aim for a $1 cost per wear even though inflation has gone up significantly since then. Therefore, I tend to punish myself by continuing to wear things I don’t like all that much until I feel like I’ve run out the dollar-meter on them.
The other reason is that my feet got a half-size bigger after the year I trained for my marathon. It took me a while to realize that this was not just a fluke of individual item sizing. Also, vanity.
I work from home. This is almost certain to continue through the calendar year. In fact, it may be forever. It turns out a lot of people at my company were commuting over 3 hours a day, and a few live so far away that they only go home on weekends! WFH has meant all these people can sleep in an extra hour and *still* be significantly more productive.
Also, they can work barefoot. Or who knows what else. We’re only on camera maybe an hour every couple months.
Right now, nobody is looking at anyone’s feet. If anything we’re checking each other for proper mask fit.
I was on camera last week with a guy in an office in another city, and he clearly hadn’t had his hair cut since before lockdown. This guy has a PhD and while I am sure nobody cares about his coiffure, I also wonder if anyone besides me even noticed.
Are we all going to have a permanent reset in our expectations about street clothes and business dress?
I wonder. I think it will polarize.
I suspect a lot of people are dressing up far more than they normally would because they are bored and lonely. Being on camera all the time and seeing yourself tends to lead to self-conscious fixations. (Personally, I find seeing myself on Zoom all the time to be extremely exhausting and demoralizing, which is why I accessorize with my enchanting little parrot. They’re not looking at me, they’re looking at her).
This is probably going to continue “when all this is over.” There will be a sense of ceremony, and a lot of people are going to want to rise to the occasion by going out and getting a haircut and then dressing up.
But then a lot of us are going to realize that our pre-lockdown clothes don’t fit quite the same way...
I really need to buy some pants right now - the weather is cooling and I only have like three pair that fit - but there is probably going to be a lot of shipping back and forth. Pants have never been an easy fit on me. I remember one trip when I tried on 38 pairs before I found a single one that fit. Either I have short legs, big thighs, wide hips, and a long waist, or pants are too long and too wide?
Or maybe it’s time to bring back the toga after all.
Whatever happens, when we finally start going out again, it will have been a long time since the last time a lot of us tried on new clothes. It’s going to feel weird. It’s probably also going to look weird.
Might as well reexamine what we have right now. Is this really what we think we’re going to celebrate in? If it isn’t comfortable enough to wear and use around the house, does it pass that test for the outer world either?
How many of us ever thought we’d wind up needing a desk for every person in the household? So suddenly?
This is a subject that tends to come up a lot, because everyone at my work was sent home to work for the indefinite future - with no notice. They’ve been continuously hiring, too, so all the new people like me were expected to provide all our own equipment.
Can I just say that sitting in a wooden folding chair for two weeks was a great way to bond with my work partner?
And also to perhaps permanently alter the shape of my caboose?
(Not sure about hers)
(Never seen it)
We’ve all been told to plan to work from home at least through the end of 2020. Personally I plan on things remaining more or less how they are through the beginning of 2023. I’d rather be wrong, of course! But it’s psychologically much easier for me to plan just to keep on keepin’ on for three years.
Same apartment, same job, same schedule, same... furniture?
I’ve heard a lot of stories about the truly pitiful situations that a lot of people have found themselves in, and the time has come to acknowledge them and take action.
By this I mean, yes, of course, we can’t have hundreds of thousands of people evicted and living in the streets. What utter nonsense. Just restructure everyone’s debts, from the banks and the mortgages on down. If I owned rental property right now, I’d definitely rather have a grateful, loyal tenant keeping guard over my biggest asset than an empty shell crying out for squatters, vandalism, and who knows what else.
That being said. This is about all the office workers and students who are suddenly finding themselves trying to get a full day’s work done amid a total and complete lack of ergonomics.
I’ve spent the last three months working full-time in a corner of our living room that is precisely four feet square. I measured it.
It doesn’t take much square footage to get in the zone and get some quality work done. It does, though, take a flat surface and somewhere decent to sit. This is quite clear in my mind as I gaze lovingly at the office chair I bought with my stipend from work. I assembled it before bedtime, since it arrived at 9 PM, because I couldn’t bear to wait for it one more day. My poor flat and striped bottom.
You know I used to work with hoarders?
One of the things that always boggled my mind was how so many people could fill rooms from floor to ceiling with ‘bargain’ items, all bought for $1-5, and then feel like they Could Not Afford anything. Anything! I would point out that if you have a hundred things you bought for a dollar, then in one way or another, at some point, you had a hundred dollars. If you had twenty things you bought for five bucks, then you had a hundred bucks. If you in fact had five hundred things (balls of yarn, sets of markers, stuffed animals, shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, etc etc etc) then you probably had enough cash flowing through your life to buy a nice piece of furniture.
What would it be?
A replacement for your lumpy, sagging old mattress? Or a bed frame to get it up off the floor?
A big bookshelf?
In this particular case, I’m changing the frame on this a bit. The concept here is not that there may be enough money for something nice, rather than a large pile of small objects. The concept is that there is probably enough space in the home for a desk of some kind, if some other objects are removed.
Keep in mind, I have lived in a space smaller than 800 square feet for the past five years. Currently we are at 650 square feet.
Three apartments back, I gave away a bookshelf on Craigslist to make space for the little secretary desk that I have now. There was no room in our apartment otherwise. My choices were: in front of the oven (blocking the fridge), inside the bathtub, or in front of our door. Or simply get rid of the bookcase and make space for something I use every day. Our next apartment was even smaller, so the commitment and the trade paid off.
I had a desk before, of course. It was made from a top I bought at IKEA for $12. I bought it because it was the biggest desktop I could find, which made it obsolete when we downsized.
See, I would never suggest that someone else do something I am not willing to do myself.
I got rid of something that was once very important to me, a bookcase I assembled myself and moved half a dozen times. It used to contain my cookbook collection, which I have since digitized. In the physical space where I had that bookcase, I now have a little desk.
It’s possible to put together a makeshift desk, or create a study/work area, without using a piece of furniture. One of my coworkers has a TV tray that she uses on the couch. I’ve seen photos of other people working in the driver’s seat of their car - not driving for a living, just sitting out in the driveway for some privacy - or on cushions on the balcony.
A lot of people are using their dining table. I know from my home visits that about 90% of dining tables are used for storage 364 days of the year. This is what I mean by trading for a desk. If all that stuff goes away, then someone has somewhere to sit and work. My husband, stepdaughter, and I have all worked together for days on end, sitting at the same dining table, and that location alone might solve a lot of problems for a big family.
My bestie and I both have bathtub trays, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we both have the habit of sometimes working while we soak. (Me, on personal projects - her, I won’t ask so I don’t have to tell).
A lot of households have completely viable furniture that could be a desk for someone. Maybe something weird, but still something about the right height that has a flat surface. An end table, a coffee table, a dresser, a kitchen counter, a rolling toolbox? An actual desk? A lot of households also have plenty of square footage for someone, either in the garage or an extra bedroom or some other place. When I was a newlywed in my first marriage, I had my desk set up in the walk-in closet next to the bathroom. Bookcase and filing cabinet in there, too.
Stephen King wrote Carrie in the laundry room. Thomas Wolfe was very tall, so he stood and wrote his books on top of his fridge.
The thing here is to value humans and human activity over any random pile of stuff.
Marie Kondo told everyone to make sure your stuff ‘sparks joy.’ I say it’s more important to build your personal environment around the stuff you like to do. Everyone in the house should have physical space to sleep, bathe, eat meals, stretch, relax, make things, and (now, alas) study or work at home. Any clutter that is in the way should be removed so the people can simply do their thing.
If there isn’t room for you or for anyone else in your home to get your work done, look around and figure out where it could happen. We might be here for a while.
Project 333 is the kind of great idea that doesn’t even feel like an idea. People tend to forget that someone like Courtney Carver actually innovated something. The more simple and elegant a solution is, the more it seems obvious - yet it sure wasn’t!
The premise of Project 333 is to take a break from what might be an out-of-control closet and only wear 33 items for three months. That’s where the ‘333’ comes from.
I know precisely one person - one of my clients - who probably has fewer than 33 items in her wardrobe.
Then there’s my husband. I just asked him, and since we’ve been WFH he has been using:
5 pairs of shorts
1 pair of shoes
= 11 items.
Carver’s book includes 33 chapters (of course) exploring the technicalities of the project. She offers a few examples of people who have tried it out, with lists of which items they included and what color.
This is fascinating stuff, and there could probably be a companion volume to Project 333 of just color grids of various people’s capsule wardrobes.
I used to be an inveterate thrift store shopper, and I had so many clothes that my closet rod snapped and dumped everything onto the floor. It turns out that being ‘organized’ and cramming everything in on special hangers is... heavy.
So was the unconscious burden of keeping clothes across six sizes, never knowing which size I’d be wearing three months later.
The more I worked with my people, the chronically disorganized and the hoarders, the more clarity I got about my wardrobe. I had a lot in common with my clients.
Buying things for the pattern or the fabric even if I didn’t wear them
Keeping gifts even if they didn’t go with anything else
Hanging onto old clothes even if they didn’t fit
Trying on several things, not realizing that most of them always wind up back in the pile
Always having a reason to keep something and never having a reason to let something go
I call this the ‘bottom up’ method. Look at what we have and work from there. What I gradually learned was a more systemic ‘top down’ method, figuring out what is actually needed.
The concept of designing a wardrobe was totally lost on me. This whole idea of choosing only things that work on my body type and interchange with each other... huh? How do people do that??
I’m exactly the audience for a book like Project 333.
Courtney Carver is right. Working with a minimal wardrobe really is better and easier. There are so many more interesting and important things to think about rather than what we’re wearing every day. Especially first thing in the morning, it’s a huge improvement to be able to grab something and feel right about it on the first try. Getting ready to start the day is one of the toughest times for the chronically disorganized. Project 333 is an ideal way to cut down on complications and have at least one area of life go smoothly.
Dress for the life you have right now, and you will move through it with more ease and grace.
I always wanted a chauffeur. That used to be something high on my outrageous dreams list. I’ve always hated driving, I’m a terrible navigator, I’m definitely the kind of person who forgets where she parked, and I saw the whole thing as a chore.
That’s why going car-free has been so great for me.
Honestly I feel like I’m getting away with something by not driving. Most of what I do in my neighborhood, I do on foot, and it feels like I’m on vacation. A little outing most days of the week gets me out in the fresh air. Sometimes I take the bus, something we also do on vacation. It’s when I get a rideshare driver that I really feel like I’m living the dream and having a chauffeur - except that I didn’t have to become a millionaire before it happened.
Why do other people drive so much? I’m not totally sure, since driving was only a regular part of my life for a few years, but I think it’s almost entirely 1. work commute and 2. errands.
Oh, and driving kids around, for those who have them, but we can get to that later.
When I talk about not having a car, especially in Southern California, people get very fidgety. It’s one of those topics that falls under the category of “preachy” for some reason, like eating enough dietary fiber or voting in midterm elections. Ugh, stop pressuring me, I don’t want to spend my social time talking about this!
It’s like people have a conversational filter, and a huge number of topics gets caught in that filter, because we make automatic assumptions about WHY someone would do something.
The only reason someone like me would quit driving - well, I can’t understand it - but surely it absolutely must be something preachy. Saving the environment or something. Ugh. *eye roll*
On the contrary, I don’t drive because I’m spoiled!
Why any middle-class person would do their own errands is beyond me. I for one am way too busy! There is no way I’m going to give up any time on my evenings or weekends to drive around in circles, looking for parking, and wander from place to place doing a bunch of unpaid labor.
That’s what errands are. Unpaid productivity.
Let’s go through the errands point by point.
(If you have kids, hear me out, because my mom did all these things with three small children *by bus* all the time when we either had only one vehicle, or our car was broken down. Riding herd on small kids is even more reason to want to avoid doing your own errands!)
Again, I see errands as an annoying chore that disrupts my precious free time.
Groceries. There is a grocery store across the street from my apartment that is open from 5 AM to midnight, every day. We’re also a ten-minute walk from a Trader Joe’s and a ten-minute bus ride from two different Whole Foods locations. We almost always walk to pick up groceries, or grab a bag as part of another trip. I’ve also paid to have groceries delivered, and for $6-7 plus tip it’s definitely worth saving 1-2 hours of my time.
When would I have groceries delivered? When I’m prepping for a dinner party, once when I was wearing an ankle brace, and another time when I had the flu and my hubby was out of town. If I had little kids, I’m telling you, I wouldn’t do my own grocery shopping again until the littlest one went off to college.
Pharmacy. Every pharmacy I have seen encourages mail delivery. I switched to this because they obviously prefer it, and also because I’ve picked up a cold at least twice when I went to the pharmacy in person.
Dry cleaning. Um, we don’t use a dry cleaner… Maybe once every year or two. I learned how to use those dry cleaner kits you can put in the dryer at home. To me, this would not rate as a good enough reason to own and operate a car. I can walk to a dry cleaner five minutes from my apartment.
Doctor/dentist/veterinary appointments. To me, these aren’t errands, they are appointments. I usually ride the bus, but this is one category where we both tend to use rideshare. We’ve never had a problem bringing our dog or our parrot with us; in fact, often the driver asks to take a photo with my bird.
Beauty treatments. I get my hair done across the street. My hubby goes to a place across the street from our favorite cafe. I’m not interested in stuff like nail art, and I have no idea how many other types of beauty treatments there are, but I imagine most of them could be combined in one full-service location? Again, this wouldn’t be a good enough reason for me to make myself drive anywhere.
Random stuff. Shoe repair - I had to take my hubby’s dress shoes in when my parrot climbed into the closet and chewed on them. It was on the bus route to one of my clubs. I have no idea what type of random things other people are doing, but how many of them involve car-related things like oil changes?
“Shopping.” What do we mean when we say “shopping”? I mean groceries, because personally I hate shopping for clothes almost as much as I hate driving. My hubby and I don’t shop for entertainment. We usually tie in something like buying new shoes or pants along with a trip to the movie theater, and we go there by city bus. I do one major clothes shopping trip a year, usually on vacation, when I make my hubby help me pick out all my stuff.
Outings. I think a lot of people come up with “reasons” to do errands because they include outings, like getting ice cream, going through the drive-thru because they secretly love it and despise cooking, or stopping at the craft store or other favorite shop. Just admit that you are in the mood for an outing and go on the outing. You don’t need to tack a chore onto it because you don’t need to justify your desire to have fun.
Here is where I might add that we used to spend $700 a month owning a car. We got rid of it three years ago. My hubby’s bus fare is paid for by his employer, and he’s learned to prefer playing games and saving money to fighting freeway traffic for 40 minutes every night.
I realize that many people don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. Neither did I during the first five years of my marriage. We sat down and consciously strategized about how we could relocate to a walkable neighborhood. It meant downsizing and being willing to fit into a smaller house… and that in turn meant way less housekeeping and zero yard work!
Since we started living the way we do, we’ve been able to live off half our income. We never fight about money. We also never fight about chores because there’s almost nothing to do, and we’ve automated most of it. When other people are out fighting rush hour traffic to do their own errands, we’re lounging around our living room, talking about stuff like what we would do with our time during the rocket trip to Mars, or why the students at Hogwarts still walked to the candy store even though they had magic.
Well, obviously it’s because walking around town is fun! Stop driving around doing errands all the time and start feeling more leisure in your life.
We continue our tradition of buying nothing and going nowhere the day after Thanksgiving. It’s going well. Three of us are bundled up in blankets on the couch, and Noelie is sunning herself by the window. Time has no meaning for us today. We’re simply relaxing and doing whatever we want.
Apparently the alternative is to get up early, drive around town, and fight other people for bargains?
We went shopping together on this supposed Black Friday once when we were dating. As we idled in traffic at an intersection, we saw something remarkable: One man kneeling on another man’s chest, hands on his throat, while a few bystanders stood there. Our attention was drawn because two pickup trucks were pulled up to the curb, one at a slant, doors hanging open. A road rage incident.
Ahh, the holiday spirit in action!
We did not feel that adding another truck and more people would bring any clarity to this situation. Instead we drove on, making up new lyrics to It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
“...and punching your neighbor and drinking some beeeeeerrrr...”
Since then, we’ve let go of not just shopping on Black Friday, but owning a vehicle and driving as well. Hanging out at home for Buy Nothing Day has spoiled us.
Bargains are not bargains. Usually a sale or a coupon is the retail price of something, artificially inflated and then “dropped” to make it look cheaper. Sometimes it’s a functionally obsolete item, shunted to the side to make room for the new version that’s about to fill the shelves. It’s never a bargain if it leads to months or years of credit card debt. We know this, right?
Whatever we buy, we add sales tax, and then we multiply by the interest rate that we are paying on credit. Then we subtract that from our post-tax paycheck. The quick version of this is to estimate that we have to earn two dollars for every dollar we spend. That is no bargain.
The pressure is off in my family. We agreed that instead of exchanging gifts, we would put that budget toward visiting each other. We also sponsor a family, bringing them gifts and groceries, keeping them in sheets and towels and that sort of thing. Our family holiday spirit revolves around games rather than piles of packages.
I just challenged my mom to online Scrabble. Do you think she’ll play me?
Shopping is hard for a minimalist. Not that we’re no good at buying things, just that it’s hard for others to shop for us. This is especially true if they’ve seen our apartment.
Nice, thank you for the lovely gift, now where in tarnation are we going to put it??
This is why, when we get a package, it usually consists of a parrot toy and a bag of dog treats. These are things that are guaranteed to get used, and they also have some fun value.
Part of why we’re staying home today is that our dog’s days are numbered. He supposedly had only a few weeks to live as of Thanksgiving 2018, yet somehow, magically, he is still here and having a pretty good day. We are in the existentially fraught situation where we literally have to compare a “bargain” to a snuggle day at home with him.
That’s technically true for everyone, but we forget.
And it’s not just true for our pets, either.
I think of all the times I’ve been out shopping with someone, and we come home tense and tired after fighting traffic, bad weather, long lines, and slow walkers. We’re seduced by an endless stream of marketing material into thinking that buying things will be jolly and spiritually fulfilling. Then we go out and try to do it and discover that the process is hollow and exhausting.
While we were in line, were we getting what we came for? Love and togetherness?
Does the shopping and the debt really translate into caring and affection?
Is this what happiness feels like? Joy and delight?
Honestly I don’t think all of us know the difference. We’re going for dopamine instead of oxytocin. Shopping expeditions are sometimes the only way that families and friends know how to relate to each other, the only way to have a good time.
This is part of where compulsive acquisition comes from. My hoarders may be out shopping with family multiple times a week. Part of the habit is justified by stocking up on gifts, gifts that may pile up for years without actually being given to the intended recipient. There’s always a special pile of gifts received and still in the original wrapping. Sometimes they have the year written on the tag so you can see how far back they go.
That’s where our bargains go, sometimes. They go into a hoarded pile on someone’s dining table or into their closet. All that shopping and wrapping, for what?
This is why it’s so hard for me to find an exchange of gifts very interesting. I can’t help but see all this stuff in the context of thrift stores, yard sales, and hoarding. What was the exciting gift of one holiday season will inevitably be shabby a few years later. The constant churning of consumer preference creates, as part of its nature, tackiness and unwearable colors and dated fashions that cause us to burst into laughter. They were all desirable one year and a complete joke not long after.
That could actually make a fun party idea! Everyone show up wearing a thrift store outfit from an earlier era and wrap up a white elephant gift from a different decade. Throw a potluck using all the dusty kitchen appliances from the back of the cabinet. Make a game out of identifying weird unitaskers, the single-use gadgets that fill so many drawers and closets. Then see if anyone will be willing to take it off your hands.
That sounds like work to me right now, though. I’m going to continue lounging around in my pajamas until noon and then see how much cranberry sauce I can fit in my lunch. This is Slack Friday, after all, and I’m not convinced I’m slacking hard enough.
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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