I’m never going to forget the first time I went into a grocery store and found all the shelves empty, the freezer bins ready to be set up as individual hot tubs for all the good they were doing anyone.
I’m also never going to forget the next three stores I went to, and how empty they were as well.
It was a rough month and I doubt any of us will ever completely let it go.
Now is the time, though, to realize that it would take an awful lot more than a global pandemic with millions dead to completely disrupt the food supply.
However we might feel about it, choices were made on higher levels. People would be called in to work, and in the first key months, they would be prohibited from wearing masks. Hundreds of thousands of people would die unnecessarily. Meanwhile, other people around the world maintained their ability to access such things as cinnamon rolls and children’s toys, chewing gum and energy drinks, fudge sauce and rum.
Whatever you want, at least in the US, you can get it. Not only that, you can probably get someone to deliver it right to your doorstep.
This is why I think we can pretty much rest assured that we will continue to be able to buy groceries throughout our lifetimes.
When I was a kid, the topic often came up of older people who had lived through the Great Depression. They hung onto (read: hoarded) all sorts of stuff that we considered useless, such as stacks of newspaper, empty cans, glass jars, and seemingly every consumer item they ever bought.
We don’t want that for ourselves, do we?
We can consciously acknowledge that we have been scarred and traumatized without acting that out in pointless hoarding behaviors, right?
I have done a lot of work with hoarders, and I can say right now that food hoarding is almost impossible to beat back. I think it only arises when some neurochemical switch has been flipped. Is there some form of therapy that might help a food hoarder to recover? I have no idea.
The best I can do is one of two things.
I can say that I myself have food hoarding tendencies, and that I am probably 95% cured.
I can also say that it’s probably harmless to examine one’s own behavior and question why one acts the way one does.
Does this serve me?
Does it really?
I think the solution to food hoarding is to keep looking at the evidence. What *exactly* is in all those cans and bottles and jars and bags and packages?
There is a way to maintain and rotate a pantry and keep up to four years’ supply of food on hand. I learned it from my mother-in-law, who did all her own gardening and canning. She kept it all in a cool room that she had designed herself, built for her by her husband on their own property.
If this is your dream, sounds great! Are you willing to learn her system or are you going to wing it? Because that kind of thing is a lot of work.
My MIL was one of those people who is up at sunrise. She busted her butt every single day in that garden. It took a lot of work to organize, sanitize, and even label everything. She had all her canning jars lined up by type of food and year canned, and she would rotate so there was never anything over four years old in her supplies. (Because it isn’t safe and it also drains of nutritional quality over time).
Personally, as much as I admired her, that has never been my dream lifestyle.
It always boggles my mind how many of my people fantasize about such throwback activities as churning their own butter, yet they can’t keep up with modern conveniences like unloading the dishwasher or the washer and dryer.
In 1890, housework was a full-time job. Even by the 1920s it took over 50 hours a week. Why would anyone yearn for that, I ask of you??
We presently have about twenty pounds of dry beans under our bed.
Dry beans are supposedly good for 2-3 years, and no longer nutritious after 5. I can tell you from experience, one time I made a black bean soup from dried beans, and it was inedible. I boiled those beans for like 8 hours and they never softened up. Dry beans do too go bad!
My food hoarders universally do not believe in expiration dates or germ theory. They will defend as “still perfectly good” the most sketchy foods you’ve ever seen: things that blew up and spattered all over the place, things that come out runny or chunky, things that smell like they are fermenting, even things with visible mold.
My record for oldest food found in a refrigerator was something that had been expired for 16 years.
If you are scoffing at that or wanting to know what it was, congratulations, you are a food safety skeptic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but I would ask you: is your digestion sometimes a bit dodgy? Is anyone in your household, including pets, prone to bouts of illness?
I am blessed, myself, with a cast iron stomach. I’d like to keep it that way, and that’s why I emphasize fresh foods in my own diet.
I cheat a little. I put my husband in charge of throwing away any food that is too old. He has zero patience with the whole concept of “it’s still good” or “it was expensive” and will just chuck stuff. When in doubt, throw it out!
I’m not suggesting that anybody throw anything away, unless of course it might make you sick.
What I am suggesting is that you start cooking up and eating the oldest stuff from your pantry now.
You can keep replacing it with new, fresh foods if it makes you feel better. If you really want to try to keep a year’s worth of food on hand at all times, sure, knock yourself out. Just please do yourself the favor of getting your money’s worth and using standard rotation.
Or if you don’t feel like socializing in the new normal, feed the old stuff to your guests and visitors!
Something occurred to me recently about why chronically disorganized people live the way they do. Often it’s because they are suspicious about things, and these suspicions keep them from relying on the same systems that ordinary people use.
This sounds bonkers, and it sort of is, but I think this is a missing piece in the puzzle of why some people struggle so much with basic life infrastructure.
Take banking and bill-paying, for example. This is something that I think about maybe 5-10 minutes a week. My paychecks are automatically deposited, and expenses like our phone bill are automatically deducted. I only have to mess with this system when I pay a one-off like a dental copay. I don’t mind doing this over the phone because I like to chat with the receptionists at my various dental offices.
What is simple in my life is extraordinarily complicated for all of my people. Every single one of them. They all have massive paper problems due to a combination of problems, but certainly one of the root causes is a complicated, 1970’s-level bill-paying system.
Another common, perhaps universal, feature that my people have in common is that they will lose track of uncashed checks. Then we will find them years after they should have been deposited. Sometimes the same checks will turn up in more than one session, because my people can never stop punishing themselves for neglecting to get that money.
Whenever I try to explain my simple system (“automate everything and do it electronically”) my people all start violently shaking their heads back and forth. Literally they all do it.
Under no circumstances are they ever going to trust direct deposit
Absolutely not, no, they are not going to set up automated billing and have a single penny deducted from their accounts, not by anyone
They are suspicious, pure and simple. They don’t trust the system and they are not the kind of people to trust anything quickly - or slowly - even if everyone they know is doing it.
Does this remind you of anything? Any vaccine-hesitant people you know, perhaps?
It’s not just electronic banking, something that has been in use since the 1990s. I get that one because I, too, had to be convinced to give it a chance. By more than one person. I think it took two or three years of hearing the same testimonials from people who didn’t know each other at different workplaces. Aha, I thought, I guess I must be the last person in the world who isn’t in on this. What finally caught my attention was that I could get my money sooner each week.
But then I’m susceptible to that type of argument: that something is more convenient or cheaper.
Suspicious people are not convinced. In fact, the juicier the benefits, the more they feel that they are being bamboozled.
Another area where I think this natural suspicion comes up is in the most deep-set type of disorganization of all, food hoarding.
My people absolutely do not believe in the concept of expiration dates.
They also do not believe in germ theory.
Now, this one is emotional for me because I used to have a strong impulse to hoard food. It was painful for me to throw stuff out. I did draw the line, though, at anything visibly moldy, discolored, or otherwise spooky.
My people don’t. If someone else suggests that maybe it’s time to throw away something with blue fuzz on it, they will react as though someone is emptying out their bank account.
How dare you!
It doesn’t usually get you very far to make a direct challenge to a hoarder’s general policies and principles. Food hoarders, far more so. It’s not like nobody has ever told them that there are biological limits to how long a former foodstuff can be absorbed by the human body, or that nutritious content has a time limit. They know better.
Oh, they know all right. They just vehemently disagree.
These so-called “expiration dates” are just part of the plot. THEY are trying to trick you and make you spend money on stupid things like fresh, tasty, nutritious new food.
As a hint, abundance mindset would teach rather that we all deserve to get maximum enjoyment out of our meals, that there is plenty to go around, and there will always be plenty more.
I have had some mighty fine meals as a broke person, eating with other broke people, when we did potluck or stone-soup together. There are a lot of ways to get fed even if you are in debt and/or don’t have a job.
A large quantity of expired food says a lot of things. It says there was enough to share with others, except that nobody did. It says that there was plenty for the household to eat, and evidently more than they needed. It also says nobody is in charge of closing the loop - making sure that stuff gets finished up while it’s still good, that stores are being rotated, that someone is in charge of getting maximum value out of that pantry.
Similarly, stacks of unsorted papers say a lot of things, too. They say that someone is overwhelmed and confused. They suggest that someone is nervous about what might be in all those unopened envelopes. They also say that someone isn’t ready or willing to field-strip the mail as it comes in, because for whatever reason, they think it will need more mental energy to process than that.
There can be an element of suspicion in all of this. Suspicion that the world is going to fall apart and we’ll need every one of those boxes and cans - and isn’t it time to reevaluate all that stuff, a year and a half into this global pandemic? Suspicion that someone is going to steal my identity, and therefore I need to carefully shred every scrap of paper that comes in my door, only I don’t have time right now.
Some of this same suspicion and scarcity mindset is behind a lot of people’s so-called “yard sale” piles as well. I really need to get maximum value out of this stuff and I need to hang onto it until I can put enough time and attention into it. Otherwise people are going to try to bargain me down.
Meanwhile, the uncashed checks remain buried in the pile, and the food supplies are aging, and the yard-sale stuff is gradually becoming more dated and less valuable.
The punchline to all of this is that my people are unlikely to accept help when it is offered, and why? Because they don’t trust anyone’s motives and they don’t trust anyone to do it right.
Suspicion will keep you disorganized. It’s only when you start to examine the emotions behind why you do what you do, that you can gradually start to consider making your life easier.
There are lots of ways to do things. If something works for someone else, isn’t it possible it might work for you too?
The difference between me and most people is that I don’t believe laziness exists. I’ve thought that for years. This is partly because every busy person I know constantly refers to themselves as “lazy” and will fight you over it.
Whatever you do, never try to convince someone that they are not actually lazy!
There are a hundred million unfinished tasks in the world, each one of which is driving someone slowly bonkers, most of which are chalked up to “laziness.” I know better, though.
That thing you haven’t done? That thing you are procrastinating that is darkening your days one after another?
You just don’t know how to do it, do you?
It’s not done because you don’t know how yet.
This idea of not knowing how to do something goes beyond basic skill level, although that is certainly part of it. It extends to not knowing how to make the emotional arrangements.
I will give two examples of things that are on my list. One is a skill issue and the other is an emotion issue. See if either of them remind you of something on your own list.
The first is something that a lot of other people might write off, and yet a few might understand why it haunts me so badly.
We were in Scotland, and we spent my birthday in the town of Aberdeen. We had tea in a cafe, and I got a slice of vegan banana bread. It stuck in my mind that there was an issue with my credit card, and it looked as though perhaps the payment had not gone through. The cashier said he’d risk it.
Well, it turns out that that payment indeed did not go through after all. The cafe did not get paid, and the cashier did not get a tip, and I unintentionally absconded with the banana bread.
One thing led to another, and now it’s closing in on two years, and I am still haunted by the bad karma of this unpaid debt, especially since it happened on my birthday.
[what if all the bad things that happened to me in the last two years - and there were rather a lot of them - were because I did not close the loop on this debt? *gulp*]
The trouble is, I’m not really sure how to send money to this cafe. If they had a Venmo I could have taken care of it in 2019 as soon as I went through my accounts and realized that I was in arrears.
That is my example of a thing that I want to do, that I cannot simply bring myself to cross off my list and forget, but that I do not mechanically know how to accomplish.
[My plan is to go to a local bank, exchange some cash, and mail them twenty pounds with an apology note. Alternately, it occurred to me to try to hire someone - a student? - in Aberdeen to walk over there and pay my tab, but I couldn’t think of a way to verify that it had been done].
*** Do I… have any… actual readers in Aberdeen? If so, and if you fancy a nice walk, reach out and I will cheerfully treat you to whatever looks good at Cup on Little Belmont Street. ***
I share this story because I know that other people are equally bothered by equally petty and maybe even dumb things, and they matter immensely because this is where we put all the mental bandwidth that we could or should be using to solve larger world problems.
The answer is, of course, to ask someone who thinks differently than you how they would solve the problem.
This particular tactic is why I got married the second time. My husband and I overlap only slightly on the Venn diagram of strategic thinking. His problems always seemed straightforward to me, unless they involve satellites, and mine always seemed transparent to him. I am very poor at convergent things like using maps or seeing the obvious, and I make up for it by being world-class at divergent solutions that nobody else ever thought of. It seems like a fair trade.
There is something about bringing your darkest and most embarrassing problems to another person that can be so liberating. Inevitably the other person also has at least one mortification to share along those lines. Being vulnerable with the right person can be the start of a great friendship, especially if your scenario is intrinsically funny.
Okay, so I was going to tell you my other issue, my emotional one. I still have not finished clearing the leftover belongings of my poor little parrot.
!!! Someone actually brought up the Monty Python “extinct parrot” sketch to me today, and can someone please explain to me what in the ever-loving sideways striped Hell is wrong with people?? !!!
If you are laughing, you suck, and also I understand. Life is so stupid that sometimes you have to laugh because it can’t be helped.
Mechanically, practically, I do know what to do with the stuff. I pick it up, and I wipe it down, and I put it in bags, and I make a couple of calls to local bird sanctuaries, and I ask if someone will drive over and get it.
Emotionally I am catatonic over this. Paralyzed. It is not happening.
I did what is the correct thing to do. I told the truth about my feelings to someone.
In this case it was my husband. He said that he would help me. I know he will because I was the one to help when we had to do the same thing with our dog’s stuff. I hand-carried bags of it to the animal hospital across the street (the one that does not treat birds).
Fortunately most things are not as emotionally fraught as the grief cleaning that I have been doing this past week.
That doesn’t necessarily make them any easier!
Almost everyone is stuck on something like: cleaning out a car, cleaning out a refrigerator, organizing a filing cabinet, emptying out a storage unit, making a financial balance sheet, resolving a bureaucratic mishap, canceling an account, hiring a plumber, or scheduling a scary appointment. It’s totally okay - it’s universal. Every person who has ever lived has been stuck at least once on at least one of these, and maybe all of them, and maybe at least one every single day.
The great thing about being stuck on something like this is that a lot of other people will know what to do, because they’ve had to do it at some point, or they actually enjoy it, or maybe it’s even a routine part of their job and they don’t care.
Once upon a time, they didn’t know what to do either, and now they do. Might as well use that hard-won knowledge for something useful, right? Helping you figure out your next baby step toward freedom is easier for them to do than it will be for you to ask.
Just because you don’t know how yet, doesn’t mean you never will. It’s good to learn new things. Now cut yourself a break and go figure out what to do next.
I’m midway through a seminar at work on Getting Things Done. We’ve spent two half-days learning the principles and doing hands-on exercises.
Have you ever gone back to something that you thought you knew very well and looked at it through fresh eyes?
I read GTD years ago, was very impressed with it, try to teach the concepts to my students and clients, and generally would have thought I was on board with it as a lifestyle.
Lately, however, large segments of my life are in turmoil. It feels like standing shoulder-deep in the ocean, attempting to watch the beach while tides and winds and storms roll up behind my back.
As we’ve gone through the exercises in the class, I’ve realized how many loose ends have started to escape from my fingers.
...oops, that one was my oar leash...
A major focus of this type of workshop is putting together a list. Or several lists. Everyone in the class does the exercises and chats about how it’s going, asking each other questions and trading ideas. Like, ‘what category does this fall in?’
Usually something that seems confusing and overwhelming to one person, like how to categorize ‘buy a new fridge,’ seems simple and obvious to someone else. A lot of these things are common or universal issues, and someone else will have direct experience.
It was cheering to realize that others are caught up in issues that I don’t have in my life. You might feel the same. I don’t have to plan a child’s birthday party or get my oil changed, and maybe you don’t have to figure out whether to do your breathing therapy in the morning or at bedtime.
At the same time, I was blindsided by how scattered I’ve become.
I was capturing tasks on at least 8 different systems. That’s like having eight brains. No, wait, actually that would probably have interesting network effects. Try again. It’s probably more like being a waiter and trying to memorize the orders for eight tables at once. Maybe it can be done, but poorly, and eventually someone is going to wind up with a milkshake with a side of ketchup.
That’s me, diner waitress. On roller skates.
I used to fantasize about that in my early twenties. That I would run away and change my name to Ruby and work as a diner waitress somewhere in Nevada. But then I realized that this was a 1930s fantasy and that I probably made more money as an office assistant.
Escape is what we think we want when we’re very busy. We think it’s a way to finally be let off the hook and be able to abandon or abdicate some of our responsibilities.
The truth seems to be that escaping makes everything more complicated. Like faking your own death somewhere in the woods and then having to reestablish a new identity with new ID, bank cards, and a source of income.
Wouldn’t it be easier to write that into a novel or screenplay, sell it, and then remake yourself as a rich and famous writer?
It’s actually easier to do a brain dump and start methodically busting through the items.
The only thing about that plan is the challenge of blocking off time and making yourself do it. Hence the workshop.
Our class has all these exercise breaks with a timer. Three minutes here, six or seven minutes there. Everyone quietly works away.
During this time, it is astonishing how many quick tasks many of us have completed. That’s one of the games, to write a list of things you can do in two minutes or less and then compete to see who can finish the most.
What I discovered from working through this exercise is that almost everything on my backlog is a fairly large-scale project. They always say, “break that down into chunks and find one that you can do in two minutes.” That doesn’t, however, clear off any of the larger chunks. The list starts to become more concentrated.
One of mine is to compare four grad schools. The two-minute part of that exercise would be to gather all their websites and see if there is some independent rating organization that compares schools. What remains isn’t something I can do with divided attention, multi-tasking or skimming through a long list of petty busywork.
This is the big thing that most of us are missing: a large block of time that is free of distractions, when we can do deep focus and feel that yes, we have truly finished something and shut the door on it.
The other area where I tend to have a buildup is in social contacts. I fully realize that in our culture, many people fill every spare minute with this - phone calls, text messages, group chats, the occasional email or quick personal note.
I do not understand for the life of me how this is done!
Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day and have 17 texts and something like 45 minutes of video clips that people have sent me. I thoroughly, endlessly can’t even.
I wish I felt excited and pleased when several people reach out and want to chat with me on the same day. Instead I often feel wounded and harassed. Why?? What do you people even want from me??
This is what comes of spending the day in a service role, switched ON for spontaneous requests from any of 150 people. This is also why my vision of myself as Ruby the Diner Waitress would have drained the marrow out of me.
The simple solution for my problem is the same as it is for others who don’t know how or when they can clean out their garage, exercise, read a book, or go to the dentist for the first time in eight years. Schedule a regular time for it and move other commitments around so you know you can get it done.
Time is the only thing we all have in common. We all get 24 hours in a day, queens and commoners, diner waitresses and dentists. That is all that we get, and it has to be enough, because the only other choices are on other planets.
The only other thing we all have in common is the ability to make choices, change our attitudes, and exert free will. These things are a little more variable. It’s possible that some people are so grumpy that it has carved physical channels into their brains. Or stress lines into their (our) foreheads.
As I come away from this workshop, my question to myself has to be, how long will it be until I need to do this again? Can I change or will I quickly default to my ordinary patterns?
How about you?
This is a story about planning and procrastination, a story about simplification and about complication.
This is a story of how it can take two weeks to plan a trip and twenty minutes to pack for it.
In ordinary circumstances, I’m a one-bag traveler. The more I have traveled this way, the better I have liked it. It argues for itself. I always know where my stuff is, I don’t have to go anywhere near the baggage claim, and in extraordinary circumstances I can dig out important items from my seat on the plane.
I’ve been flying on my own for over 35 years. I’ve tried so many different combinations of luggage and packing styles. I’ve got it down to a science: I open the suitcase, lay out everything I’m going to wear one on top of the other, matching the top seams to the edge of the suitcase, and then fold in the arms and legs and zip it closed.
I have literally made a video of this process and demonstrated that it takes less than five minutes.
Why do people get so worked up about packing? I ask myself. It has to be one of two reasons: worry about what people will think when they see you, about which I care not a fig, or worry about What Will Happen.
What if it gets cold?? What if it gets hot?? What if it rains?? What if Henry Cavill asks me on a date?
I will admit that I do worry about that first one, because I despise being cold and it has become a non-trivial problem in my life. The other three, eh, who cares.
I no longer attempt to pack a ball gown just in case I find myself in a simulation modeled after a romance novel. If I have to choose, I’m taking the thermal underwear, and I doubt there’s room after that for a crinoline.
Have I traveled through multiple countries with just a backpack? Yes I have.
This is why it is such a conundrum: why does it take so long, for someone who packs so quickly, to get ready for a trip of any duration?
For a vacation, surely anyone can understand that the more planning goes into the trip, the more fun it can be. I will never forget the day we arrived at a museum that we wanted to see - the entire reason we had stopped in this particular city - only to discover that it had been razed to the ground. All that was left was a flat gravel patch. Whoops.
Normally I will spend days or weeks researching restaurants - and double-checking that they are still there in the same location, with the same hours and the same menu. I will book shows and plot out grocery stores and pharmacies, and check the annual weather forecast and read blogs to find out what kind of bugs live there. All that good stuff.
This is part of why I can pack so quickly. By the time I get to the stage of hauling out my suitcase, which is an obstacle for daily life in a tiny apartment, I have a very strong sense of what the weather will be like and how I will be spending my time.
(The other secret is to only have clothes that you like to wear, stuff that you rate at least a 4 out of 5, so it doesn’t matter which ones you bring).
There is more to the planning of a trip than the activities that one does on the trip, though. That’s the future forecast part.
The real work is in getting ready to leave the apartment.
One of the bummers of travel is that such a large part of the trip involves re-packing, the return trip, and then walking in the door to resume normal life. Jet-lagged, perhaps sunburned, most likely dehydrated. With a suitcase full of dirty clothes to wash and put away.
And a messy apartment to clean?
This is the gift that I give to Future Me. After too many bummer weekends and road trips that ended in weird smells - ask me about the green juice I left on the bookcase by the front door one summer weekend - I decided that I needed to, at minimum, take out the trash before I left.
And clean out the fridge.
And make sure there was nothing damp in the laundry hamper.
And check for wasp nests in the bedroom.
Each, one by one, added to the list after bitter experience.
Trip planning has started to push itself further and further back into the timeline. Now, it involves making sure we don’t overbuy groceries, starting the week before the trip. It involves timing the laundry for optimal packing and minimal scariness. Ideally, it involves putting clean sheets on the bed the morning of travel.
There are other things that need to be arranged. Putting a hold on our produce delivery. Making sure I don’t have any appointments that need to be rescheduled. Perhaps putting a stop on the snail mail. Ensuring no packages are going to show up and sit inconveniently on the doorstep while nobody is there. What else, what else, what else am I forgetting?
On this particular trip, I ordered a box of supplies to be there on arrival. My special matcha, a case of soy milk, a bottle of mouthwash, and what else will I need? Hmm...
The biggest thing that I needed to arrange in advance was the ordering of my new MicroClimate helmet. I am hearing mixed things about how cooperative the various airline personnel will be in actually allowing me to wear my helmet through the whole trip. This is something I will have to write up. In the meantime, it seems possible that it might free me to ride the city bus once again, if I no longer have to worry about picking up every cold and flu the way I did in 2018.
There is one other important thing that I arranged in advance - over a month in advance, in fact - and that was getting my COVID-19 vaccines. I will be officially “fully vaccinated” the day of my trip.
I used to like to joke that all you really need is a bikini and a tiara. Now I think you don’t even need that much, just antibodies and a smile.
What is the thing that you would protect at all costs?
I’m not talking about your phone - although honestly, that’s the obvious one - or your kid or your cat. I’m talking the secret little thing that you do, the part of your life that you will make happen no matter how weird things get.
Morning cup of coffee?
Afternoon chocolate bar?
Reading a little before bed?
Everyone has something. One of mine is taking pictures of trash. My hubby knows I may suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk, even when we’re on vacation, or go back several paces so I can get my shot. It’s just part of the deal.
We know how to protect our assets when they’re important enough to us.
I was reading a time management article in Fast Company that introduced this concept in the sense of time management.
Ah yes, I thought, that is a brilliant way of looking at it. For instance, I will not go anywhere without breakfast, preferably a hot one. Doesn’t matter if we’re on the way to the airport for a redeye flight, preparing to drive a moving van several hours, or even if we’ve spent the night in the emergency room at the hospital. I am going to eat breakfast so don’t even argue.
Then I realized that this concept of protecting the asset is the difference between tidy people and... my people, the chaos club.
It’s a matter of mindset, like most things.
Many of my people associate cleaning up and getting organized with punishment and trauma. They never learned to do these things the easy way, it could never feel like a natural part of their life because it only ever happened under high-stress, emotional conditions.
On the other hand, the sort of people whose homes look like they could be on the cover of a magazine? The HGTV people? They don’t think this way at all.
What is going through their minds is more like “let’s make this pretty.” Or “I’m framing this shot so the composition is not disrupted.” They’re not focused on the drudgery at all - they’re simply restoring their environment so that it more closely matches their aesthetic vision.
...I know, right??
It actually irked me when I learned that chefs clean their own kitchen area every night. Argh, I thought, don’t let my husband read this! I was firmly of the opinion that after I slaved away over a hot pan, someone who was not me should do the cleanup.
(We’ve gone back and forth on that over the twelve years of our marriage. Some years, one of us cooked and the other cleaned, and then we would trade the next night. A few of these stints, we’ve done both the cooking and the cleaning on the same night, which is where we are now, and we still trade nights).
As my cooking improved, though, I started to feel it. I started to feel that resonance with the kitchen counter and the sink and stove as my work area, my artist’s palette. As I wiped things down, what I’d be thinking about was the next recipe I wanted to try, and how much easier it always is to walk into a spotless kitchen and get started.
Who was I doing it for? Myself.
Protecting the asset is, in one sense, my gleaming sink.
In another sense, it’s the precious bubble of my desire to compose delicious meals. For myself, and, incidentally, my husband, or sometimes my family or friends as well.
This is the biggest difference between me and a burned-out stay-at-home mom.
Well, besides the facts that 1. I can’t have kids and 2. Most 45-year-olds don’t have little kids at home.
I know that no matter who lives with me, I live there too. No matter who else is eating, this is my meal. This is my own lifestyle.
My asset, in this sense, is my sense of my own home, my household, my lifestyle, my daily routine. I live the way that I choose to live, and unfortunately that takes a certain amount of labor.
Some are willing to put nearly infinite time into their hair, their eye makeup, their nail art, their fashion choices, maintaining their shoe collection. Others put that time into gaming and creating a virtual universe for their avatars.
This is an affirmation that whatever it is that we truly love to do, we should raise it up and enjoy it. Own it, declare it - in the secrecy of our own hearts if we don’t literally feel like telling anyone else about it.
What I’ve learned to love are fine home-cooked meals and an intentional living environment.
One of those is a sort of natural outgrowth of loving a parrot.
She’s a whirlwind of loose feathers, shredded cardboard, and nibbled kibble that she’s somehow flung six feet in every direction. She is so unfathomably messy that it’s impossible to coast along and ignore it. My fluffy little gray asset.
The other thing about choosing to accept domestic scutwork with good grace is that it helps to hide my little secret. That secret is that I live for books, always have, always will. Scooting around cleaning is my way of ensuring that I have at least a little time to myself to get into my audiobook.
The asset, the asset. If I didn’t have a certain amount of private time to read every day, I would lose my mind. I honestly don’t know how other people survive without it.
This idea, of framing things as assets and putting the focus on that - rather than problems - can change your life if you let it.
The assets of mental bandwidth
The assets of relationships and long conversations
The assets of the physical environment - the soft bed, the sparkling kitchen, the reading chair, the indulgent bathtub, the desk where interesting things happen
The asset is anything you want it to be, anything that you choose for yourself. There’s no reason to limit yourself to just one. What if it was an asset of entitlement to something like privacy or creative expression or advanced education?
I had another iteration of a conversation I have had with several people. Someone tries to convince me that they are lazy, after I’ve gotten to know this person and have every reason to think of them as highly productive.
“You are NOT lazy,” I will say, already knowing how the conversation will go.
“I totally am,” they will say, and then proceed to argue all the reasons why they are so lazy.
There is a quote out there that goes “never argue for your limitations”
[pause to find out who said that?]
[Richard Bach: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”]
...but I don’t necessarily think that’s what people are doing when they claim to be lazy.
Something complicated is going on here.
I’ve done it myself, even though I don’t really believe in laziness as a thing that exists, and I’m not even sure what I’m trying to accomplish when I’ve said it.
There are a couple of arguments I could make in favor of my own purported ‘laziness.’
For instance, yesterday I made canned soup for dinner and just chopped up some collard greens to throw into it. I have a robot vacuum cleaner and sometimes I just brush crumbs onto the floor so the robot can get them later.
Another person who read that, knowing more details about my life, might say, Yes, but that’s farm-fresh organic collards from the community-supported agriculture collective. And you only have a robot vacuum because you’re a neat freak; I’ve seen your apartment.
It appears that “laziness” is a matter of perspective.
Chances are high that I know too much about the housekeeping and productivity habits of most of my friends.
The last person to claim to me that she is lazy - “SO lazy” - is an especially comical case. This particular person is one of the two individuals I have ever met who keeps Inbox Zero as a default. Both are basically allergic to having an email in their inbox for more than five minutes after they’ve spotted it. Same thing with having a to-do list. Anything that can’t be handled immediately feels stressful and draining to this type of person.
That is true about procrastination: it does feel stressful and draining. Yet those of us who are prone to procrastination will do it anyway. We can’t even figure out why we are tormenting ourselves by dragging out how long we will have the task breathing down our necks.
It’s a funny thing. It’s hard to tell the truth and say, “I need help! I’m stuck procrastinating on this thing and I don’t know why and I can’t seem to get started.” Yet almost anyone will claim, “I’m lazy, so lazy, no, you don’t even understand how impossibly lazy I am” even when every detail of their life is immaculate.
It seems like there are two parts to this:
One, the virtue-signaling of acknowledging a high standard - for productivity, fitness, home-making, maybe grooming, but probably not personal hygiene;
And two, also signaling an approachable and friendly level of relatability.
Because think of the alternative. What if we all were as busy and productive as our wildest dreams, or maybe even a little more so?
And what if we met, and judged each other for it?
And nobody ever had any fun because we were just chasing each other in circles with our clipboards stuffed full of checklists?
Loose thread, check. Speck of dust, check. Nope, sorry, you simply are not perfect enough to have coffee with me. And besides, I’m much too busy to consume coffee in a sitting position. I drink it iced because it works better in my hydration pack. Onward!
I’m starting to think we should flip this standard the other way.
Lounge around as the default, occasionally do something, and then brag about how hard we worked.
I’m saying this because I’m sort of mad at myself and I’m not sure what to do. I have alternating three-day weekends, and I keep trying to set aside that block of time for lounging and relaxing, yet I keep finding myself doing housework.
On Saturday I was going to read a book, and instead I found myself reorganizing my linen closet.
Why?? It’s not like anyone is coming over???
I bought my husband a neck massager. It’s shaped sort of like a scarf. You drape it over the back of your neck and put your hands through the stirrups, and you can pull down on it to decide how much pressure. He says it’s already fixed neck problems that he’s had for years, and now he’s encouraging me to use it.
I’ve tried it: twice.
I keep finding myself sitting next to the magical neck device, setting up calendar appointments or making grocery orders or... or something. And then suddenly it’s bedtime and I haven’t done the neck massage.
Tell me, if you identify with any of this at all, do you think it’s some kind of perceived moral hazard?
That if we relax we might actually become lazy?
That we’ll fall off the tightrope and wake up to find ourselves living in complete squalor?
I asked my husband, Do men do this? Do men ever tell each other how lazy they’re being? He said yes, and he’s done it himself. Turns out this isn’t a gendered thing, it’s a ‘productive people’ thing.
I was going to tat up this lace tablecloth before you all came over, but I was being lazy and I didn’t finish.
I was going to bake 27 dozen cookies for the school fundraiser, but I was too lazy.
I’ve been trying and failing to think of something that I would consider genuinely lazy. (At least, not when someone else does it. Everything I do is obviously lazy to the extreme). I could tell you a lot of stories about hoarding and squalor, for instance, yet I know the backstories and I don’t believe laziness is implicated there. Not in the slightest.
What is lazy, exactly?
Can someone tell me? Because I’m starting to think maybe I should actually try it. At least for an hour or two on the occasional holiday weekend.
The grass is green where I am sitting right now. It’s 65 degrees, someone is throwing a frisbee, and a local school is holding a masked rehearsal for a musical. Spring is here and most likely, it will reach you where you live soon.
Spring cleaning this year is so much more optimistic than most years.
So much to look forward to! Already 1 in 6 American adults have been vaccinated. One day I had three friends from different parts of my life getting their shots on the same day. My bestie got hers (for reasons that do not make me jealous whatsoever). It seems likely that many or most of the people we know are obediently going to get their shots.
...and then, a million years from now, when we get our turn...
And then we can all hang out!
It’s this fantasy of being able to have our one friend over that is motivating me this year. My bestie is only two and a half weeks away from getting her second shot. We live within walking distance of each other. It is entirely plausible that this summer, we’ll be able to safely invite her over.
And what will she see?
This is a visualization game that I’ve done with so many of my hoarding clients, when they’ve started to make real progress but there is still so much to do. There are probably loners who hoard, but everyone I’ve worked with is excited by the idea of having people over. So we go into it in detail, the more the better.
Who will you invite?
When was the last time they were here, and what did you do?
What will you eat?
What music will you play?
For one person it was going to be a board game night. For another it was going to be a barbecue.
The last time, for us, it was birthday cake out on the rooftop deck of our apartment building.
I try to look at our tiny apartment with the fresh eyes of someone who has never seen it before. It’s small, all right. Nothing to be done about that. There certainly is a live parrot sitting at the focal point of the room, in front of the only window. If I’m new to her, then her little belly feathers are trembling with excitement, and that does tend to divert from any lack of design elegance.
The windows need washing again
There is bird kibble strewn across the floor, as usual
Plus shredded cardboard
A small apartment has the advantage of being relatively easy to clean. It has the disadvantage that every area is high-use, especially when the occupants are home 99% of the time.
And one of them sheds feathers.
I feel fortunate that technology has developed to the point that it has. We have actually discovered a brand of handheld vacuum that picks up down feathers rather than blowing them sideways on contact.
This is one of the few things that can make housework mildly interesting: enlist power tools and robots that feel more like toys and less like traditional drudgery.
Another way to gamify the experience is to play Beat the Clock. There are several ways to do this:
One, race your roommate. This requires full buy-in from the other party (or parties) and is thus unlikely to happen. Basically if you mention cleaning to another person they will think you are bossing them around and thus loathe you, or feel suddenly unable to do what they otherwise would have done simply because you brought it up.
Two, set a timer and try to finish everything in X amount of time. In the before-times you could base this deadline around something like the start of a TV show, or having to leave for the movie theater. Now the best you can probably do is order food delivery and try to finish before your meal arrives.
Three, run all your devices concurrently and try to time them together. This is what I like to do.
Start the laundry. If you are fortunate, someone who is not you can do this. Then put up the dining chairs, check for cords, and start the robot vacuum. While those machines do those jobs, you can:
Dust the ceiling fan
Dust everything else
Wipe down the counters
Scour the sink
Clean out the fridge
Break down boxes
Take out the garbage and recycling
...but then, you can do all that every week, and perhaps you do. What makes this different from deep cleaning?
What you have to do for spring cleaning depends on a lot of factors, like how big your place is, what kind of flooring you have, whether you have a yard or a garage, what kind of bedding you have, when is the last time you sorted out your closets, whether you have storm windows, and a bunch of other things.
The key is to go around, while you are doing basic chores, and notice.
When is the last time anyone moved this piece of furniture and cleaned under and behind it?
How many dead flies are in the tracks of the windows?
When is the last time anyone checked to make sure none of the sinks are leaking into the cabinet?
...Is that... algae... growing on the bottom of that faucet??
There is something about that fully inspected, freshly polished and scoured atmosphere of a deep-cleaned room that really gives a sense of accomplishment.
Or at least it’s something to do while we all wait to get the go-ahead to hang out together in person.
While I get my apartment ready, I’m thinking about three things. What will I feed everyone? What month will it be? And how do I tactfully ask our friends to see their proof of vaccination?
Time to spring clean! This year should be much more exciting than other years, because it’s entirely possible that we’ll all be able to get our COVID-19 vaccines soon and commence socializing in person.
If you don’t like hosting at your place, maybe you can get excited about going to someone else’s freshly spring-cleaned place?
Or maybe the prospect strikes dread in your heart because you have no idea what ‘spring cleaning’ means or how to do it?
Or maybe you know full well, and it just seems like when you finally start, it will take three years?
That’s okay. You don’t have to actually do anything this year, or any year. You can just eat snacks and read this and imagine it, the same way I used to watch Richard Simmons workouts from the comfort of my couch when I was a little kid.
What’s unfailingly interesting to me about helping others clean house is what their homes reveal about how they spend their time. Clean houses are all pretty similar - you can find the forks, you can find the laundry soap, you can find the spare towels, you can find a pen - yet messy houses are all messy in their own particular way.
To an outsider, there are always immediate questions:
How long has it been since you could use this door?
Why is there a pot on the floor?
You didn’t know about this leak, did you?
But where do you sleep??
I’d like to remind everybody that our homes are supposed to serve *us*. We are not their servants. What we do, we do to make ourselves more comfortable and to make our lives easier. One day robots will do it all and we won’t even realize how much effort went into it, just like I have no idea what is involved in getting electrical current into my outlets.
Beds are for sleeping. Bathrooms are for personal hygiene. Kitchens are for preparing food. Living rooms are for relaxing.
When you are no longer able to do these functions, something has taken over, and that is either clutter, deferred maintenance, or a problematic roommate.
Physical bottlenecks are easy to spot. A door that can’t be opened, a table or countertop that is unusable, a bed that is buried under piles of stuff, an area where someone has to turn sideways to get through.
Sometimes the bottleneck is being unaware of your surroundings. Not just clutter blindness, but a blind spot about relationships and power dynamics.
Sometimes the bottleneck is fear of calling the landlord or a repair person. Sometimes it’s shame.
Sometimes the bottleneck is lack of money, coupled with a lack of knowledge of how to solve problems without money, which usually involves at least rudimentary negotiation skills.
Usually, though, a bottleneck has to do with a routine - or lack of routine - and the way that stuff tends to accumulate in certain parts of the home. These bottlenecks often have to do with tight schedules and multiple people.
For reference, I would say that only about 10% of people keep their homes staged and photo-ready most of the time, 80% of people are basically at least a little messy, and about 20% of people are at least at first-degree squalor. It’s more common than you would think.
Let’s cover a few areas that tend to be full of clutter, not just in my clients’ homes, but in most people’s.
The car. When I meet someone with kids, I’m willing to bet a flat green American dollar that their vehicle is messy. Most people have junk in their cars. Why? Because when they get home, all they want to do is go inside. Also, a lot of the time, when they are exiting the car it is dark outside.
Area around the front door. (Or whichever door people are using, sometimes the door between the kitchen and garage). This is where people dump their stuff when they come in, and there it stays, usually because there’s nowhere else for it to go. Most homes do not accommodate a landing station.
Dining table. Also kitchen counter. This tends to be overflow for mail, kids’ school papers, menus, coupons, and any other papers that come in. This tends to be an extension of two other problems: 1. If there is a desk, it’s also covered with papers, magazines, catalogues, books, packages that need to be returned, bills, tax documents, and whatever else. 2. The lack of a designated place to dump stuff after coming home.
I can fix all of these problems basically by waving my hand. This is because I’ve found the bottleneck, which is the transition between coming home from wherever, and settling in to relax. Once awareness is brought to this, a person who is highly fed up with a clutter-filled life can make a simple change.
THIS IS A TRANSITION
One of my clients solved several clutter problems by hanging a reusable shopping bag on his doorknob. He kept having to buy these shopping bags, his house and car were full of them, each bag was partly full of mail, and they were also getting expensive.
We talked through his new habit. He would bring one bag out to the car with him in the morning, he would put his mail and whatever needed to come back into the house in the bag as he went through his day, and then he would carry the bag back in. He would call a friend and spend five minutes emptying the bag while he chatted, and then he would hang the empty bag back on the doorknob.
(The phone call to a friend is the most important part of this; Obliger types will do anything if they can hear a friendly voice and basically nothing if they are lonely).
If you think to yourself, Right now I am spending the five minutes that will stop my annoying problem, it can give you a sense of purpose. It also starts to pay off quickly so that you can see how well it is working.
Okay, so here are some of the most common habits that lead to bottlenecks:
Going from the car to the house basically empty-handed
Opening the door and setting stuff down “for later” - especially mail
Going back out to the car basically empty-handed
Wandering away from the kitchen after eating
Those habits alone can quickly lead to a cluttered car, a dirty kitchen, and mail and papers on every flat surface in the house. If you’re ambitious you can do this in just days.
The exact reason why someone suddenly decides to make a change will vary from person to person. (For me it’s usually doing a photo consult with a client or watching a hoarder show). Not just the reason for change will be unique, but the exact spot where someone starts will be unique too.
One person will be motivated to start with their bedside table. Another will start with the medicine cabinet. Someone else will clear out the trunk of their car and presto, there’s enough room to start hauling off bags of donations.
Where will you start? Where will your spring cleaning begin?
Don’t overthink it - just start somewhere!
Today we were all looking at the floor plan of the building where I nominally work. I’ve been to the building, coincidentally, but I haven’t been within miles of the place since the day I was hired. I don’t have a security badge and there is no computer on my desk. I might not even have a chair - I don’t actually know.
My name is on the map, though. Might as well take this as a sign that the world is going to be more or less back to normal in the near future.
Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone. I know a few happily retired people whose lifestyles haven’t changed much at all since the pandemic. I also know several people who have driven to work every morning without a hitch, the only differences being the masks, the sanitizing, and the distancing requirements.
Statistics show, though, that only 34% of people can now claim they never work from home, and 44% are working from home all the time now.
That means a lot of us are going to need to shift gears pretty radically when we start going back in to the office.
Predictably, there are probably going to be a lot of long lines and wait lists for things like haircuts.
(I’ve been fine cutting my own hair, and my big headphones are graciously covering a lot of… transition… in my hair coloring… but I would rather make my debut with one consistent shade than a giant ledge in the middle of my head).
I know I won’t be going into the office in person for at least another four months. That might sound like a long time. If I think of it in terms of wearing the mask and being cooped up in our dinky apartment, it’s crazy-making. Then when I think of it in the context of everything I have to do, it sounds like the blink of an eye.
Time to start making a backlog.
Cut and color - I can do that in the same appointment. What else do I need to do in that end of town? (Haha, just kidding, I get my hair cut in the building next door).
Work clothes - alas! I can’t wear my beloved “work pajamas” to the office and I know I don’t fit in any of my office-type clothes from 3-4 years ago. This gives me four months to either put together a new capsule wardrobe or drop a few pounds, something I have been trying to do for the past year with little success.
Shoes - same. Whatever clothes I wind up wearing, coordinating shoes are on the same list.
Work bag - I can use what I have. Do I need to clean it out? What’s in there, anyway?
Lunches - I haven’t had to pack a lunch to take to work since 2009. What am I going to eat?? I don’t even know what this place has in terms of a break room. This brings back so many memories of having food stolen from the communal fridge, the reason I used to bring ugly melted containers for my leftovers.
The commute! - I haven’t had to commute in over a decade, either. How am I going to get there?? It is out of walking range and I’m not sure I will ever feel brave enough to board a public bus again. Last time, last summer, I wound up with bacterial pneumonia and I’m not sure whether that was a coincidence or an unfortunate consequence of sharing space with Other People. This is a non-trivial problem that I hope is resolved by the decision that everyone may continue merrily working from home.
But - just in case - plan I must.
I read that in the before-times, a lot of people worked from home at least occasionally. In those types of offices, it appears that the people who come into the office are the ones who get promoted. This is obviously a factor in this type of decision.
On my team, I also happen to live the closest to campus. If one of us were to be called upon to commute in, I would feel stingy if I kept wheedling or positioning myself so that Someone Else had to go in instead of me.
Thus I am facing the prospect of going in, working in person, and sitting at a desk with a mixture of excitement, curiosity, resignation, and of course a healthy dollop of mortal terror.
It turns out that we don’t have a legal basis for requiring people to get vaccinated before they can come to work.
What we have here is a raging case of Uncertainty, and being in the Place of Uncertainty is a phenomenally strong motivation to attempt more planning and preparedness exercises.
This is what I do. I visualize myself getting up, getting dressed, grabbing my lunch and my work bag, and making my way to work.
As opposed to putting on my “work pajamas” and wandering twenty feet to my desk, where I can work barefoot or bundled in a blanket and nobody even knows.
There are other things that we can all consider before the world goes back to normal. These are the things that Today Me has not felt like doing, but that Future Me is going to be too busy to do once that hour a day or more is lost to commuting.
Cleaning out the car?
Trying on work clothes and sorting out whether they fit, whether they need repairs, or whether they should get recycled
Sorting through all the various bottles, jars, and potions in the bathroom
Practicing all the hair and makeup styling tricks I have completely forgotten how to do
The stuff I wish everyone else would do, to wit, learning to write a decent email subject header and figure out when to reply-all or not
And, honestly, the stuff most of us are more likely to do once we realize that WFH is almost over and may never return:
Staying up as late as possible idly scrolling on our phones
Binge-watching a few last shows
Suddenly feeling premature nostalgia for this time that we all hated so much, until we realized it was almost gone.
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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