I have to know. After all this, have you set up a desk yet?
Desks have always interested me, because in my experience most people don’t really use them. Desks are chosen more for their aesthetics than whether someone actually wants to sit in front of them and do stuff. Now that so many of us are stuck at home, when we never planned to be, I’m getting very curious how it’s all working out.
How many people live at your place? How many of them are studying or working from home? And how many have a physical desk?
The amazing thing to me, in my work with hoarders, has always been the way that stuff takes over areas that are no longer useful. Even when a certain space would be perfect for something that someone likes to do, that activity isn’t getting done because the stuff is in the way. The baker can’t bake, the crafter doesn’t have any flat surfaces to lay anything out, the writer has nowhere to write, the dancer can’t dance.
This is why I wonder. Now that the world has changed, are people changing the way they live amongst their stuff?
One of my friends has recently made a huge change. She has been dealing with chronic disorganization at least as long as I’ve known her, enough so that she’s been evicted at least twice over it. All of a sudden, she reached out and took me up on my offer to coach her. We talked on the phone for an hour - ONE HOUR! - and she’s spent the last several weeks clearing out her place. She sends me video updates from time to time and it’s incredibly dramatic.
Underneath all the piles, there emerges a fine design sensibility and some very graciously appointed rooms. Who knew?
My friend runs her own business, but it is in no way paperwork-related. I don’t think she has a desk at all, and if she did I have no idea what she would do at it. She’s all phone, all the time. She remains my only client who has no issues with paper clutter.
I think a lot of people have a desk because it was given to them at some point, possibly in high school, and they just move it from place to place. They may never have stopped to ask whether they even like it, much less want it, use it, or need it.
Others probably have a “computer desk” that they picked up in the time when we all used desktop computers with a bunch of peripherals and disks. They may not have noticed that at some point they pivoted to doing almost everything on their phone or a tablet.
Most of my people have desks that are basically just another flat surface for piling mail and other papers. The dining table and the kitchen counters are basically the same way. When I do home visits, (or used to), we would whip through the papers at lightning speed because almost none of them were useful. It would be 90% junk mail, restaurant menus, catalogues, coupons, and random stuff they never asked for. Most of what was left was redundant, stuff we don’t need to keep, like utility bills and grocery receipts.
This is what I wonder. How likely is it that people are still hunched over, working or studying in some uncomfortable position all day, when all that unsorted paper is still piled up doing nobody any good?
I think about it a lot, because I started a new job not long after the stay-at-home order, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have a decent office chair. I was using a wooden folding chair, one with slats that I never realized were so cruel. In all the time I had used this desk, I’d never sat at it for more than maybe two hours at a time. It actually made my butt go numb.
After two months of nine-hour days, I was ready for a proper ergonomic chair, ugly as it is. I assembled it at 10 pm because there was no way I was waiting another day. After a bit of time sitting in my lovely new chair, I bought a velvet seat cushion and I never looked back.
Life is too short to be hunched over and giving yourself back, shoulder, and neck pain at some makeshift pretense of a work station. Or to put your legs to sleep because you’re sitting in a slatted folding chair.
I know I’m not the only person who was doing this because I found out my work partner was using the exact same type of chair. It would be an extremely weird coincidence if we were the only two people on Earth who were doing that to ourselves.
I realize that money is tight or nonexistent for a lot of households right now. I also know that a lot of people habitually give their stuff all the best real estate and furniture in the house, and leave only little slivers for themselves. For many people, what they need to do in order to be more comfortable is to remove things, not buy or add things.
In the past few months, I’ve given away a lot of things to various strangers in the neighborhood. This has caused me to notice how much other stuff people are giving away, and that oddly seems to include a lot of desks, bookshelves, and chairs. It’s probably a combination of people relocating, and upgrading to newer furniture when they realize that what they had in February 2020 wasn’t working after the world changed. It’s entirely possible to take a look at the listings and realize that you’d be doing someone a favor by taking your perfect desk off their hands. Help them make some space.
Make yourself some space.
A question that is always helpful to ask is, If not now, when? What’s the exit strategy for what I’m doing? When will I want to do something else instead? The way we arrange our rooms is part of that, that sense that it’s good to change things from time to time. It’s good to make sure that our stuff serves us, and make sure we are not at its mercy.
Take a moment to look around and ask yourself, if you’re working from home: Is it time to set up a real desk? Maybe something different, maybe in a different spot? Is it time to finally sort out some stuff and let it go?
Best of luck to you, and I hope your chair is as good to you as you deserve.
I’m tossing around a concept presented by Barry Davret that is really blowing my mind right now. Never get ready.
What does this mean?
The idea is that most of us spend a lot of time doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t actually help our situation. We burn energy “getting ready” to do whatever the thing is, energy that would better be used for doing that actual thing.
I think this is both true and untrue, depending on how the point is taken. As a poster or a slogan on a coffee mug, it might be very helpful for some and for others, it might simply make a great excuse.
Let’s look at some examples.
Someone who is trying to start a business, who puts tons of effort into building a social media presence, choosing logos, fussing over a website - and does not actually make any sales.
Someone who is “getting ready” to go out, who puts on and takes off several outfits, throwing them on the bed and the floor, and then leaves various bottles and jars strewn all over the bathroom counter. This person may feel nervous and self-conscious throughout the event, tugging garments into place and forgetting to actually have fun. (“This person” is probably every single middle-school student).
Someone who is getting ready to make a craft project, who shops for materials and buys books and chooses patterns, who has a half a dozen projects in progress, but then never actually finishes anything. (Me 1997-2009)
Someone who is getting ready to start dating, who signs up for an app, looks at tons of profiles, maybe even starts talking to people, but then never actually meets anyone in person.
One of the classics that I see in my work with chronically disorganized people is the sheer quantity of little tasks they will do before they walk out the door to go anywhere. Take the date-night “getting ready” aesthetic jitters, and add half a mile of pacing back and forth looking for objects or finishing little chores. It’s exponentially harder with small kids.
I used to be this way myself, until I acknowledged that I didn’t want to leave at all and I was coming up with reasons to stay in my apartment as long as I could.
This is what Davret is driving at with the exhortation to “never get ready.” Just jump in and do the thing, whatever it is.
I agree with him 99%.
The 1% of hesitation is that a certain amount of preparation is necessary in order to get straight to the target action. This is what we mean by Getting Organized.
For instance, I keep a shower kit packed at all times. When I want(ed) to go on a trip (before COVID), I would simply grab it and put it in my suitcase. I have another little pouch with a charging hub, backup batteries, adapters, and extra cables, including one for my Apple Watch. I have recorded myself packing for a trip in under five minutes. I put four changes of clothes, pajamas, and a pair of shoes in a suitcase that fits under an airplane seat. This is how I have managed to be a one-bag traveler for many years, even overseas.
In this sense, I can do what I want and “never get ready,” because I am always ready!
In another sense, there is a sort of carefree interpretation of “never getting ready” that would not benefit from my system. Sure, it’s possible to get on a plane with nothing but a passport and a credit card, and why not? I’ve thought about it quite a bit, in fact. It’s through the experience of nearly 40 years of travel that I’ve chosen to bring a certain amount of excess, like a blister stick and some headache tablets, because it makes my life easier and it saves time.
Let’s do another example. I took up public speaking several years ago, because it made me miserable and I was terrible at it. All you can do is improve, right? When I started out, I would spend a week working on a five-minute speech, and an entire day memorizing it. The good news is that I learned I am really good at memorization. The bad news was, whenever I would lose my spot, I would vapor-lock and have no idea what to say.
My friends in the club finally convinced me to start winging it and quit trying to memorize my stuff. “It’s your own story and you know what’s going to happen,” they said.
It didn’t take long before I started winning Best Speaker ribbons for impromptu speaking. Now I rarely do any preparation for a speech at all. I might read a couple of articles, but usually my material arises naturally out of whatever I’ve been reading and thinking about that week. I never get ready any more because I’ve reached a state of constant readiness.
What the desire for getting ready and feeling prepared comes from is anxiety. Perhaps there’s a mix of impostor syndrome in there, along with an intolerance for being in the Place of Uncertainty.
The question is: Can I handle this?
The answer, most of the time, is: Of course I can.
Of course you can.
There are a bunch of specific skills that tend to give someone a feeling of being better prepared for the weirder events of life. They should be advertised this way.
Basically it feels like this: I have a go bag, I can talk my way out of most situations and maybe buy my way out of others, if it all starts to go sideways I can fight melee, and after that I can patch myself up and maybe hide out in the woods for a while. Anything that doesn’t fit these parameters shouldn’t affect my self-esteem too much anyway.
In one sense, it’s true, we should probably never get ready. We should just focus on doing whatever it is that is truly important to us. In another sense, maybe we should focus more on being ready for anything.
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!
Something I have learned from working with chronically disorganized people is that they don’t tend to think in terms of categories. My people are fun to work with because they tend to be exceptionally nice and creative. It’s also funny to surprise them with patterns they hadn’t noticed until you point them out.
Others may ask, “Why are they doing that? How can they live that way?”
I know that the answer is, “It hasn’t occurred to them yet that it might be a problem.”
Why is there a pot on the kitchen floor?
Why doesn’t he have a shower curtain?
Why are there things behind the door so it can’t open all the way?
Organizing books and techniques tend to focus on the items in a home and where to put them. I prefer to focus on the living space itself, which is usually the absence of any and all items, and whether my person has room to do anything.
Can you sleep in the bed? ...The whole bed?
It’s surprising how common it is for my people to pile clutter of all types on their beds, and then sleep on only a narrow little sliver of mattress. Or the couch, or a chair.
Can you open all the doors? All the way?
Again, incredibly common for stuff to be piled behind doors. It may have fallen back there. Maybe nobody noticed. There may just be so much stuff that it’s the only space left. My people don’t tend to realize that they may be subconsciously blocking their doors for protection, a barricade that insulates them in their comfort zone.
Can you walk safely up and down the stairs?
I try not to be judgmental in my work, because people are entitled to arrange their personal space however they see fit. I do set the boundary early on that I ask people not to keep “anything with DNA” and to please fix obvious safety hazards. Storing stuff on the stairs is one of them. Putting fabric like dish towels on top of the stove is another.
Can you use the shower, sink, and toilet?
I have been in a lot of homes with nonfunctional plumbing. These are usually the “ones” on the Readiness Scale, the people who are absolutely not ready to do the work. They are fine with the way things are. I don’t work with them - they wouldn’t want me to - but they do make great case histories for my twos and threes.
Note: Any professional who does home visits, whether it’s a mover, a cable installer, an exterminator, a plumber, electrician, or whoever, has seen it all. Every single day. (I know because I always ask them for stories). Don’t be embarrassed to call and get something repaired. Your place probably won’t be the worst they’ve ever seen, and it might not even be the 500th worst. The only thing I’ll say is that an exterminator will charge more to service a place that is packed with stuff than they will for a more streamlined home.
Are you constantly annoyed by rodents, bugs, mold, or broken stuff?
See above. Please take action and take care of yourself. You deserve to be safe and comfortable.
Some of you may be reading along and thinking, Whoa, maybe I’m not as bad off as I thought. Probably true! Pop culture has developed an awareness of hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization - although it doesn’t distinguish between them - but it isn’t well-known how very common it all is. I would estimate that maybe 10% of people are so clean and tidy they could do a magazine shoot, while 80% are basically messy most of the time. The bottom 20% are totally like what you’d see on TV. Yes, I said 20%!
Almost all of them either think it’s their dirty little secret, or they don’t care at all and they’re essentially rebelling against what they think other people think.
The truth is that most people are too busy worrying about how they themselves are being judged to worry much about anyone else. They’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves.
For those who are more in the middle, there are more practical questions to spot issues that could be fixed by Getting Organized.
Are you often running out the door late, in a panic?
If you have kids, does someone start crying in the morning more than one day a week?
Do you have to go to the grocery store more than twice a week?
Can you remember the last time your car ran out of gas?
Can you remember the last time you had no piles of laundry, either clean or dirty?
Can you eat at the table if you want to?
Would it take you more than five minutes to find: your keys, driver’s license, phone charger, prescriptions, passport, umbrella, or a postage stamp?
Most of these issues reveal the lack of a system. That’s all. Often one simple change can get rid of a whole series of hassles. For instance, out of the above list, most of those items in my home are within ten feet of each other.
Organizing issues aren’t graded. There isn’t a report or an audit. (Unless you’re in an apartment or townhouse, in which case you might have 24 hours to prepare for a habitability check).
What it really comes down to is your tolerance for a background level of stress, anxiety, or confusion.
Where most of my people have issues, besides not being highly skilled at putting things in categories, is that they are reluctant to ask for help. They’re embarrassed, they don’t know where to start, they don’t even know whom to ask. They blame themselves for “being lazy” or “procrastinating” when the real issue is that they have no idea what to do. How is that someone’s fault?
One way to approach it is to collect stories. Simply ask other people what they do in a certain situation, like whether they have trouble getting themselves and their kids out the door on time. Maybe they’ll share similar stories and you can laugh about it together. Maybe they have some tricks that would work for you, too. Just don’t go it alone, and please, don’t keep tolerating baseline misery. You deserve better.
For complicated reasons, we had brief access to a car. We were going to have to return it, obviously, and I wanted to use the opportunity to drop off some donations at Goodwill. There is one about a half mile from our apartment, quite close in walking terms, but only if you’re not lugging a 15-pound box of stuff.
I checked the website in advance, because these places are notorious for having different hours and rules of operation. Five p.m. Great. It was not quite three.
We pulled up at 3:05 pm. I got out with my basket.
Apparently the donation hours had changed the day before and they were now closed at 3:00 pm.
Uh, but, I’m standing right here, and the door is still open, and it’s now 3:06?
I felt wilted and humiliated and frustrated. Now what was I supposed to do??
Of course none of that was the fault of the young employee who relayed this message. It was probably not her policy and she was probably quite tired of getting pushback from people about things that were outside her control.
I’ve been that person, berated by hoi polloi because I wouldn’t sell them alcohol during prohibited hours or take returns without a receipt, among other crimes against humanity. Far be it from me to ever be the worst transaction of someone’s day.
Still I was pretty cheesed off.
We wound up still having access to the car the next day. I thought, what the heck, let’s give this another shot. I have zero closet space, and this box is taking up valuable real estate in my tiny apartment. I recalled the hours of drop-off as 10 to 3, so I called ahead to triple-check.
Oh, we close at 1:00.
What?? Okay, seriously.
I kept those thoughts to myself and simply asked, “Is that every day?”
It was noon, so we hustled it over there, hauling the big clunky box back down the elevator for the second time in under 24 hours. We weren’t convinced they would actually take it off our hands until the trunk was slammed shut, at which point we did a victory dance.
Then we took the borrowed car down the street and had it washed and vacuumed, because that’s how we roll.
It remains a mystery how these charities that exist on donated goods and volunteer labor can pick and choose what they take and when they take it. This experience of being sent away with my attempted donation has happened more than once, in multiple cities. That’s why it’s good to do a bit of research ahead of time. Who takes what?
There are some surprising items that most charities won’t accept.
Plastic garage shelving
Furniture of any kind - depending on location - but especially not glass furniture
Baby stuff like high chairs, cribs, or strollers
Electronics - and this completely depends on size and type
We tend to give things away rather than sell them, even if they might fetch a decent price, because my patience has been completely worn away by dickering with cheapskates. I mean, I’m a tightwad, but there is an ethical code to this stuff. Don’t ask for an 80% discount on something that is already 80% cheaper than retail.
I’ve used Freecycle, Craigslist, and Nextdoor to give stuff away. Each of these services has resulted in a barrage of frantic emails and texts asking if they can get whatever it is, only to ghost and not pick it up. After a certain amount of time, I’ll move on to the next person. It has taken as many as four tries to get someone to actually pick up the thing they wanted. This is true when it’s listed for free, and it’s also true when it’s something for sale. I can only guess that some people get that eBay-type thrill of winning an auction, without any real desire for the item in question.
There’s a limit. There are only so many individual listings that I have the patience for. I’ll usually only do it for large items I know I can’t donate, like a table or a box of Mason jars.
That leaves smaller, random things. Clothes, old housewares, maybe books. I’m not going to sit around waiting for my neighbors to finish fighting over a lamp we bought at IKEA for $10.
It would be nice if there were somewhere in the neighborhood where we could exchange stuff. We have a few “little free libraries” where the trade in used books is brisk. They really aren’t big enough for other types of items.
In other neighborhoods, people have been known to leave free stuff on the curb, or set it on the ground next to the dumpster. Neither of those things are an option where we live right now. Logistically I can’t imagine where we would host a yard sale, either, even if it weren’t a pandemic and even if I hadn’t sworn off them several years ago.
Throwing stuff in the dumpster and sending it to the landfill, when there’s nothing wrong with it and someone could still use it, is the line I just can’t cross. Landfills are a pretty extreme problem even when they’re filled only with useless trash - why make it worse?
Also, I remember the long years when thrifting was my best option. I wonder what all the young families and student households would do if there were no thrift stores?
Things are weird due to the pandemic. There are millions of people looking for work who will be feeling the financial effects for years to come. There are also tens of thousands of people who have used the stay-at-home order to declutter their homes and garages. News reports have shown donation centers packed full with lines of cars waiting to drop stuff off. It will take a while before it starts flowing out again at the rate it went in.
In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have two square feet of space back in my little apartment. Here’s hoping I won’t have to arrange another drop-off until the next time we move.
So far I have failed to make it past the first episode of any organizing show other than Hoarders. I keep thinking I’ll find them motivating, or that they’ll teach me something new about coaching clients. This time, I might keep going, because The Home Edit is good for my marriage.
I turned to my husband after watching the show and somehow not noticing the transition to Episode Two.
“Do you know why I foisted this on you?”
He paused for a beat and then said, “Because you don’t have any of that stuff.”
“Got it in one!”
The Home Edit seems to find time to help two households per episode with one area of their home. The first episode happened to include two women’s closets, and then the second episode had... a woman who needed help with her closet.
There are a lot of things I like about the show and about The Home Edit in general. I love that it’s a woman-owned business and that they’ve done so well for themselves, moving from consulting to the book to a product line to their own television show. I love the rainbows. I also went so far as to organize my own refrigerator based on their methods.
(My husband loves it, by the way - it’s the only organizing job I’ve ever done that he has particularly noticed or commented on more than once).
There are some things that I think are funny across the Home Edit universe:
The pantries in these homes are the size of what used to be big walk-in closets.
The closets in these homes are the size of... literally my entire bedroom.
People are paying big bucks to professional organizers to sort things that I don’t even own.
I thought about this a lot because my holdout friend finally called me for help. I have a local friend who I knew immediately was “one of mine.” I told her about my work and offered to come over and help her for free - because I love her and I’m nice that way. She wouldn’t even let me see her place, much less accept my help. (And then she got evicted twice in a row, from two different apartment complexes, for failing the habitability check). We talked on the phone for an hour, and then she sent me photos. Level 2. Then she busted her butt like a maniac, all by herself, and got rid of 80% of the hoard in her living room - in like five days.
I think about people like her when I see these shows that celebrate standard consumerism. For my people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators, it tends to lead to even larger hoards. They believe that buying more stuff - organizers, matched sets - will solve their problem. Then they find out the hard way that they have 10x more stuff than will fit in the organizers.
Every time I did a home visit, I would fit “organizers” with the price tags still on. Bins, tubs, boxes, drawer units, and definitely clutter-busting books!
Getting Organized is aspirational. I didn’t realize, when I started, that what I really hankered for was an upper-middle-class lifestyle in an upper-middle-class home. My tiny, dark apartments were never going to look like the spacious, well-lit houses in those photos. There’s a reason a celebrity like Reese Witherspoon has multiple closets the size of my living room, and it’s because she can afford them.
Ever go around The Container Store and price out your ultimate shopping list? For most homes, it would easily be a couple grand. Not everyone is going to be able to spend $200 on organizers for their fridge and pantry, or specialty hangers and storage boxes for their ultra-closet.
Maybe spend that on new furniture instead, if you can?
There are two reasons my holdout friend finally started getting rid of her hoard. The first was love - her dad was coming to visit for the first time in many years and she was beyond excited to see him. The second was money - she started her own business and she’s probably earning at least triple what she was when we met. Those simple shifts, from isolation to hospitality and from scarcity to prosperity, are very powerful and effective.
I wonder if now my friend will take an interest in things like The Home Edit?
Hey, did you pack your go bag yet?
Someone close to me has been on an evacuation order, the fires are that close. Seven people on his work crew had their houses burn down.
I told him, yeah, my good friend had her house burn down last year.
Between us, we probably know almost as many people who have been affected by wildfires as we do people who have contracted COVID-19. (Which, by the way, has started touching my own personal family in a most offensive manner).
The first thing to think about with go bags is actually not your own stuff - it’s your pets and their stuff.
This is what I reminded my person, who claimed that his cat likes to ride in the car. True. Cool story, bro. Have you tested that theory when there are flames down the street?
Animals panic when things are on fire. This may save their lives, if they can outrun the flames in the right direction. It may also mean their certain doom, if there’s nowhere to go. It’s also unlikely you’ll be able to find them again.
BTW did you get your guys microchipped?
We have a parrot, and fire would be extremely bad news for her. Smoke inhalation would probably take her out before we could get her into her carrier. Nevertheless, I keep it directly under her sleeping cage, door facing out. All we would have to do is pull the Velcro so the door flaps down and stuff her inside. Right next to the carrier is her go bag, with styptic gel and a few other supplies.
Styptic gel, you haven’t heard of it? Neither had our vet. It stops bleeding if you smear it on a wound. It stings a little, but it’s got a topical analgesic in it so they calm down right away. Birds, dogs, cats, people, probably lizards, I dunno. Most useful veterinary first aid item I know of. I keep it in the outside pocket of the go bag for easy access.
First aid. That’s the thing that nobody really thinks about until something happens. Like this time I was running for the bus, and I tripped and flayed open my knee just as the bus was coming. I got on but I didn’t have so much as a napkin to stop the bleeding, and that was the end of my white capri pants. Now I take those large bandages and the gauze and the rolls of tape a lot more seriously.
Our smaller first aid kit is right on the top inside my go bag. It’s bright red, of course. No matter how many times I might pack and repack this bag, the first aid kit is staying on top.
What else goes in there that we always meant to pack, but never got around to it?
Somewhere, somehow, you want all the contact information for your insurance. (Medical, car, homeowner, whatever else you have). Also all your bank information and anyone you’d want to get in touch with if you have to evacuate.
Assume, of course, that you’ve lost your phone somewhere.
Strangely enough, I had a second conversation right after I talked to my person about evacuating his pets. This one was about restoring a device that hadn’t been backed up.
* this is your regularly scheduled random reminder that, oh yeah, you kept meaning to get around to that, too *
I explained that, considering what the device was used for, it was probably okay that it had never been backed up. But please talk to the free tech support person about getting that set up, so you won’t continue to run into this situation every few years?
Imagine the perfect combination of factors: your device was never backed up, you never packed your go bag or listed off your emergency contacts, and then you actually did have to evacuate. You’re sitting in an emergency Red Cross shelter trying to rack your brain and figure out how to get ahold of everyone. Anyone.
Facebook, probably, and someone would probably be kind enough to let you log in for a few minutes.
But then, with your life up in the air, how many hours do you really want to spend tracking down all your insurance and bank info? As well as lining up somewhere to stay?
And trying to track your poor missing animals?
Hopefully not while your kids cry down to their chins over them?
I have had to evacuate my apartment because of a fire. I’ve also had to evacuate my building at work after explaining to my customer why I had to hang up our call, which they did not believe. When it happens, it’s not like they write you several letters first. You’re either sound asleep or doing something important when BOOM BOOM BOOM. That is, if you’re lucky enough to have a firefighter come and beat on your door.
I don’t mean to be scary, except that I totally do. Packing a go bag is somewhere way down the list from writing a will, becoming an organ donor, and putting your fire extinguisher somewhere accessible. (Um, you do have a fire extinguisher, right?) Try to make it vivid and visual in your mind that these things happen, and lately they happen all the time.
Practice. Practice grabbing your stuff and rounding up your small dependents and actually getting them out the door. It will immediately become obvious if there are any flaws in your plan.
I tried it with the dog, the parrot, and my backpack. It was nuts. I could barely walk 1 mph. Fortunately, nothing was on fire so they were both like “Walk? Right on!”
Suddenly all my great plans about packing a paperback book and some playing cards didn’t sound so great. Keep it light.
If you don’t actually have practice walking long distances with a heavy backpack, don’t put yourself in that position on the one day you really need that backpack. Either train for it or keep culling what you have in there. Keep putting it on and weighing it.
Having a solid evacuation plan is more valuable than a go bag. Even better is to have several plans. Think out what you would do if certain roads are blocked. Think out what you would do if you have to shelter in place for several days. Talk it out with your best friends, especially the fluffy kind.
Hopefully we never need any of this stuff. It sure is a lot easier to sleep soundly when we know that we have it zipped up and ready to go.
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).
I’m playing around with a bit of reverse psychology right now. The idea is that I can’t have a backlog of anything anymore. If anything has been hanging around in my backlog for longer than, say, three days, I need to either deal with it or decide that I never will, and
This is something I have tested over and over again on my clients, and it makes steam come out of their ears. There’s a glinting ember of something in here that really has my attention. Why are we so bad at letting things go even when they drive us crazy?
My case is unusual in that I thought I was dying only a few months ago. I spent days in bed, too ill to sit up, too weak to hold my phone to my head. All I could think about was all the things I’d never said, the things I’d never done, and the stupid remnants of my life that my poor husband would have to sort when I was gone.
It was sad, but it was also embarrassing and annoying. I got really frustrated with myself.
This? This was going to be my dying epiphany? That I should have enjoyed life more and lived in the moment and not procrastinated so much?
When it was starting to look like I was going to make it (before the next lung infection that challenged that idea), I understood that I had a chance to use this suffering for something. I did two things. I decided to treat myself as Version 2 and act as though I had physically died and started over as a new person. I let go of anything from my “previous life.” I gave myself permission to shrug off any residual feelings about that stuff.
(Confession: I never finished reading The Aeneid in my summer Latin class, even in English, so that happened).
The second thing was that I mulled over what I wanted to do with my new chance, my second bite at the apple. That was that I wanted to get a day job again and then go to grad school.
Spirit acts fast sometimes. The opening for the job that I have now showed up in my husband’s email that same week. Everyone who has heard about my desire to get a fellowship and work on my PhD has been encouraging.
I’m very lucky in this new job. Most of the people in my department are morning people; quite a lot of them clock in at 6:30 AM. We’re on 9/80s so we work long days. I worked it out with my partner that she does mornings and I do afternoons, so I work 8-6, and then we alternate Fridays. The two of us can cover nearly twelve hours a day, five days a week. This has built in at least an hour a day, and a full day every two weeks, when almost nobody is around. I can tie up any loose ends from the day, and then from the week. I’m almost always able to start Monday with a clean slate.
It’s a nice feeling, something I’d like to get used to.
Now that I’m gradually recovering and approaching my baseline energy level, I’m steadily working on things that didn’t get done while I was ill. This is where the reset comes in.
The world shut down quite suddenly, as I’m sure you recall. Probably like most people, I had various things in progress that simply stayed that way, on hold. It’s a bit like those mystery stories where the people leave with half-eaten meals still on the table.
A bag of stuff to take to the donation center, pictures to hang, that sort of thing.
While I made a magical decision on what I thought was my deathbed, it didn’t magically whisk anything away. Everything I had thought about was still in the same condition as it had been in March. The major difference was that my email and DMs had continued to accumulate.
This is where we get to the technicalities of this whole “Do it or dump it” idea.
We start with two rough personality sorts.
There are three main phases of action: initiation, maintenance, and completion. Most people tend to prefer one of these phases and dislike another one.
There are two main moods of clutter: looking forward and looking backward. Some people prefer to anticipate the future and others cling to the past.
Put these together in various combinations and see if they remind you of anyone you know.
Are they stuck in a rut because they can’t get started, or because they don’t want something to end? (Not launching a business vs. not finishing their degree).
Do they have a thousand projects because they like starting something new, but then get bored? Or are they surrounded by heirlooms and unsorted boxes because they can’t let go of the past?
“Do it or dump it” applies to clutter like this. If you haven’t used it in the last year, ask for help and get rid of it. End of story. This applies equally to unfinished craft projects, unread books, clothes that don’t fit, broken stuff that you haven’t fixed yet, workout equipment, untested recipes, and supplies for remodeling or baking or whatever.
I sorted my physical clutter long ago. Now I’m down to digital clutter - mainly email newsletters and [checking] 45 GB of podcast episodes - and pending projects.
Here, “do it or dump it” means deleting anything over a certain age (or size, or from a certain source, or whatever works), or canceling something. I will never finish that illustrated “Bride of Godzilla” story I wanted to do because after I started the sketches, I learned about aggressive copyright protection.
What is it that makes some of us cling to old, outdated stuff for so long, even after we’ve already demonstrated that we aren’t interested enough to engage with it? What are we thinking? Why do we do this to ourselves?
I’ll share my motivations, which may or may not overlap with yours. I get attached to the potential of various future versions of myself - a version of me who can, for some reason, speak several languages while playing ukulele on a unicycle - and I don’t like admitting that some of it will never happen. Also, I have serious FOMO about anything I haven’t read but wanted to. Whenever I think about not having time to read every book in the world, my eyelid starts twitching.
There are people who are quite good at the “do it or dump it” philosophy. For instance, I once worked with a young woman who had an empty email inbox 99% of the time. She said that she found having even a single message sitting in her inbox annoying. My husband is the same way with having a packed closet. When he gets a new shirt, he - I am not making this up - immediately gets rid of an old shirt.
If you know someone like this, or even someone who has a different pattern of attachment than you do, there’s a simple solution. Go to this person and tell them about your predicament. “I can’t stop saving old receipts because I keep thinking I’m going to categorize them in my finance app one day.” The incredulous gaze of this unattached person should be very helpful in giving you the motivation to go ahead and either do it, or dump it.
Or ask them to do it for you. They’ll probably think it’s funny. Then you’ll be free to do whatever you want - as free as, in fact, you already are.
Good things come in small packages. I have to believe that because I have a little parrot, and also because I’m 5’4.” I’ve also come to believe it because my work area measures four feet square.
We made the decision about five years ago to choose the path of financial independence. We sat down and worked out a clear strategy, one that is radical but that has also been done successfully by thousands of people. We chose to go car-free, get rid of most of our stuff, and radically downsize our living space so that we could invest as much of our income as possible.
Most married couples balk at the idea of getting rid of their cars. That’s the major sticking point. Living in a quarter of the space is next-hardest. Getting rid of 90% of their physical possessions sounds like fun, until they realize it’s not all their partner’s stuff but their own stuff, too. Oh, I thought you meant just the kids’ toys. Dang it.
We felt like we were prepared, and we had already downsized three times in five years. Then, out of the blue, we got the opportunity, the double-whammy: The dream job in a city by the beach.
It all happened fast at that point. We had done most of the mental and emotional labor together. We had come up with a vision of our end-game, and now it was legitimately our chance to make it happen. Did we really want it as much as we said we did?
We literally did it in two weeks. We scheduled a garage sale, and whatever was left at the end of the weekend went to a conveniently timed rummage sale in several carloads. Then we got a moving van and put all our remaining stuff in storage, boarded our pets, and moved into an AirBnB for a week until we could pick out an apartment.
It never occurred to either of us that this opportunity of the dream job would turn out to be for both of us. Neither of us thought that I’d end up working there, too.
We certainly never thought we’d be living here for Pandemic 2020.
If we’d realized we would be effectively housebound for a year (psst: probably closer to three), we probably would have chosen a larger place?
Now both of us are working from home, on opposite ends of the couch, and our living room doubles as a shared office cubicle.
The comedy factor here is that we share the space with: a parrot. Little griefer who thinks it’s hilarious to whistle every time one of us is on a hot mic. I rue the day she ever recognized one of our friends on Zoom and figured out that all those faces are actual people. Now she is obsessed with getting on camera and making everyone tell her what a pretty red tail she has.
This is what we have for now. This is where we’ve landed.
Having put so much effort into the path that got us to this apartment, it’s easier for us to accept that we’re sentenced to share the equivalent of a hotel suite, all day every day. About 50% bigger than an RV.
Yes, obviously millions of people are having a harder time than us right now. I come from poverty, I get it. This story is about making radical changes to reach financial freedom, and how that can be both fun and empowering.
Every time I tell a story like this, I hope that at least one person will read it and start wondering, Hmm, what if I tried something like this?
Anyone with a romantic partner has the option to turn to that person and say, Hey babe, I was reading this weird story. What would you think if we...?
This is how relationships are saved, when we look at each other and realize that we can trade the default life for something else. We traded the debt and the lawn care and the commute and the errands and the chores of a standard suburban home. We traded them for independence and living by the beach.
And then it sort of bit us in the butt, because this whole work-from-home thing would have been a lot easier in our newlywed rental house, the one with three bedrooms, two baths, a backyard and a garage workshop. The one with the huge pantry and *gasp* the laundry room.
[The one in the county with 1% of the deaths of our current county]
We’re here. We are where we are. We got ourselves here. Now what?
It turns out, and this is the surprising part, it turns out that a person can get quite a lot done in four square feet!
I realized this the other day while I had my work laptop open, with my desktop monitor above, while talking on my phone through my headphones. Somehow I had room for two keyboards, a trackpad, and a notepad.
Then I realized that if I had a standard-sized desk in the building, the extra space would probably be filled with files and a bunch of office equipment like a stapler and a tape dispenser. All the detritus that is only needed when people are still doing things 19th-century style, aka on paper.
We aren’t going back this calendar year, that’s a 99% certainty.
If/when we do go back, what will happen?
I basically know where I would sit. Hubby and I would commute in together. I’d get up an hour earlier so I would have time to constrain my hair. We’d commute home together and immediately start making dinner. We’d spend close to two additional hours a day, times two people, to go back and forth to a building where we would do the same jobs that we are currently doing successfully at home.
Where does the time come from? It comes from our sleep and our workouts, of course.
I think this change is going to be permanent for information workers like us. At least 40% of people can do their jobs completely online right now, and I suspect it’s actually closer to 60% once the numbers come in. Some people aren’t going to like it, but I think the efficiencies for the employer are so obvious that - why fight it?
This four-square-foot space is likely to be my holding tank for the indefinite future. I think I’m actually okay with that.
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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