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.
It was brought to my attention how much apps run my life when I found myself awoken by my alarm on a work holiday. Why, I thought, can’t there be an AI that notices when there is a holiday and reminds me to turn off my alarm?
This is something I think about a lot. When will artificial intelligence be able to take over more of my mental bandwidth, and what would it look like when it does?
Right now the focus seems to be on consumer habits and passive entertainment. Whatever algorithms are in place right now, they do a decent job. I actually like it when an ad for something I’ve bought recently, like a bedspread, follows me around the internet for months. It then displaces whatever advertisements might have filled that spot and enticed me to buy things I didn’t know existed.
The algorithms in my news reader are fantastic. It hasn’t taken me long to get all the gator news a girl could ever want. I also use this as a source for my little tech newsletter, which not only makes me look awesome at work but probably got me the job in the first place.
If there were ever one solitary thing that artificial intelligence improved in my life, it would be this. I can find an endless supply of articles about robotics and drones and other tech innovations while scarcely lifting a finger.
On the other hand, this constant access to valuable information is like drinking from a firehose. I realized some time ago that scrolling through my technology newsfeed has become my default mode, eating far more of my day than I ever intended. What did I do about it? Why, I turned to an app!
I went into the settings on my phone and set a one-hour time limit on my news app. This has been in place for one day and I already feel like I am levitating against a glass ceiling. I also expanded the quiet hours on my phone, so not only will it not ring or show me text messages, but I can’t open most apps after 10:00 pm.
It is helping but also it is really not helping
What I’d really like is for AI to help with more of my day-to-day. I lost an hour of sleep because I set up an automated alarm clock and neither I nor my electronic backup brain realized that I should temporarily turn it off. In how many other areas could I be living a more optimal existence with a little artificial assistance?
One of the biggest and most obvious ones, to me, is the gathering of the stuff. Is there an app yet that reminds people to put certain objects in a pile and make sure they are carried out the door? This would be one of the greatest memory aids of all time.
I think I’ve actually figured out a way to do this, although if it works the way I think it will, it’ll take a bit of setup.
I went to a grocery store in person the day I wrote this. Trader Joe’s! Why do you not work with delivery services! Because you don’t have to, okay, I get that! But still! Anyway, I was quaking in my shoes but I figured, with careful planning, I could do a “smash and grab” speed run and spend fewer than 15 minutes in the store.
(I was right, because I am a logistics master and an experienced trail runner and also because I felt the hounds of hell breathing down my neck the whole time).
I used a paid app called Morning Routine. Normally I use it in the morning and at bedtime, so I remember all the dumb things I normally forget, like locking the door and turning on the dishwasher. You can add items to a list and give each a time limit, and then the app runs the timer for each task and switches to the next task when the time runs out. If you’re skillful about your time estimates, this timer will keep you on track. The key feature is that you can set it to read each new item aloud.
I made my shopping list, with each item listing the item I wanted followed by the next item, so the app would read both. For most people this might look like: “front door to bread, bread to eggs, eggs to milk, milk to cereal, cereal to toothpaste.” Since I knew the layout of the store, I was able to do this in the most streamlined path between items, and I had everything on my list in six minutes. The list is still in the app if I find myself having to go in again.
(In two masks and a plastic face shield)
I think the Morning Routine method would work for getting ready for work, loading kids’ backpacks, packing for a trip, and generally getting out the door. If you take the time to keep tweaking it, and actually listen to it, it will keep you from flitting back and forth between rooms. You can keep adding items as you remember them, from sunblock to permission slips to bridge toll. The app then becomes like a butler or personal assistant.
It’s a short jump from that to an actual robot that tootles around the house, loading your suitcase for you and carrying it to the car.
Eventually it will happen. Within our lifetimes, I bet it will. The potential payout is so, so high, and once one person has one, it’ll be like smartphones all over again. Everyone will want one to the point that people will camp out overnight in a tent in order to be first in life.
Until, that is, our robots can go out and do that for us.
The question, whenever we welcome new tech into our lives, is whether we’ll allow it to be a boon or a curse. Will we use it to free up our time and mental bandwidth, giving ourselves an overall lifestyle upgrade? Or will it just be a monkey on our backs?
This is why I pause every now and then to ask, if apps run my life - which obviously they do - which ones are in charge this week? Is this what I would have wanted? Can I make adjustments so that I am impressed with the results?
What did you do over the weekend? (Take ‘weekend’ to mean ‘day off from work’ - not that everyone has that as an option).
Among other things, my hubby had to spend about two hours talking to tech support, using my phone because his wasn’t working. While he was doing that, I ordered groceries and produce delivery, negotiating several products that weren’t available.
This is a reflection that technology makes our lives easier with one hand, and more complicated with the other.
Another example of this is that our bathtub faucet suddenly started dripping. I emailed our landlord about it, as part of a thread about the ceiling lights that suddenly quit on us and whether it might be an electrical issue. Due to COVID, we mutually agreed not to fix the faucet until “all this is over.”
It turns out that people have more to do than people of our same age did twenty or thirty years ago. That’s mostly because commerce has offloaded more and more tasks onto the end user, and it’s crept up on us, and we’ve barely noticed.
How much of our time is spent on things we didn’t have to do in the past, like updating passwords?
I’ve been noticing this sort of thing more, because I got a new job last year and we work 9-hour days. Since I work 8-6, almost everything is closed when I get off work, and a lot of it is closed during my lunch break as well.
The alternatives here are either to do these things during my off Fridays, or try to cram them into my breaks.
It’s amazing how quickly a free Friday can disappear into shadow labor.
I’ve decided that the only way to cope is to tag these shadow labor tasks, calling them out for what they are, and divvy them up so that I never have to do more than one or two per day.
One piece of shadow labor that I do every day, without fail, is to unsubscribe from whatever has infiltrated my email that day. For some reason, there are often as many as half a dozen new impertinences to fend off.
Another, similar task is to block spam phone calls. If you don’t get on them right away, they’ll just keep calling, sometimes four times in a row.
Yet another, similar task is to sort and toss junk mail from the mailbox. Same problem, different form factor.
Don’t we all have a fundamental right to privacy? And yet why are there marketers constantly coming at us from all sides demanding our attention? Why can’t we make it a single hour without getting an unwanted phone call, email, or piece of glossy unrecyclable mail thrust at us? At least they aren’t leaving as many on our doorknobs these days.
While I strongly resent having to attend to these things each day, I also recognize that my life is easier if I do. I can bundle these mindless activities and blast them off my mental bandwidth while listening to a podcast.
Technically, they barely count anymore.
The goal with mental bandwidth is to save room for two things: System II thinking and high-quality leisure time.
Ideally we want at least a four-hour uninterrupted chunk for the HQLT.
Deep thought, the kind of concentration you need to do something like your taxes, depends on the person. People with attention deficit issues might want to start with a short chunk like 15 minutes, and gradually work up to maybe two hours without a break. People like my husband, who is a sort of swami at this stuff, can go ten hours at a stretch. It’s nuts.
Yet something to aspire to.
What we’re looking for are as many things that we can do with as little concentration as possible, so that we can free up time in as large a chunk as we can.
I finish work at 6 pm every day, for instance, so there isn’t very much time between then and bedtime. A whole evening can vanish before I know it. If I tried to do an uninterrupted four-hour block, I’d pop my head up at 10 pm and realize I hadn’t eaten dinner, exercised, or anything else.
What I want to avoid doing is spending my evening on hold with customer service somewhere, paying bills, emailing my landlord, or otherwise dealing with administrivia or life maintenance.
It turns out that most of these things can be done in five minutes, and almost all in under 15.
I paused while writing this, and hit another shadow labor moment that is quite funny in retrospect.
We were renting a movie, and for whatever reason, iTunes wouldn’t load, so I decided to try to rent it through the Apple TV app. Because I hadn’t done this before, I had to enter my iTunes password with the remote. This is slow and complicated and I should probably figure out how to do it on my phone, except that’s yet more shadow labor.
Just as I was about to enter the last character, I accidentally scrolled too fast and clicked ‘Cancel.’
I started making incoherent blithering sounds and punching the air, as one does.
Then I started laboriously entering my password again - and I accidentally hit cancel *again.*
At that point I gave up and rented the same movie through Amazon Prime.
I had to remind myself that if we weren’t doing this, in this bizarro world that we all currently inhabit, then we would have been at the movie theater, trying to buy a ticket from a glitchy kiosk, or waiting in a long line, or getting our seats kicked by someone’s child. The shadow labor of not shouting at a person.
It’s always something.
Sometimes it seems like if we could just have one easy day, one day without friction, then everything would be perfect. The catch is that whenever friction is removed from one area, it becomes more noticeable in another. The game will never be over.
Focus on focusing. Focus on lengthening the amount of time you can concentrate, and also focus on the amount of leisure time that you have to lounge around doing nothing, thinking nothing at all.
I haven’t finished my New Year’s planning yet.
This is the first time this has happened that I can think of. Usually I spend all December working on my goals and resolutions. Now that I have a day job again, I’m super busy.
I figured it would be fine if I did the rough sketch, then spent New Year’s Day and the rest of the weekend filling in my bullet journal, making my goal board, and all that stuff.
Instead I wound up sleeping all day on the first. By “all day” I mean that I woke up in the morning, ate breakfast, and fell asleep for an hour and a half. Then I woke up again just enough to waddle to the bedroom and pass out again until 4:00 pm. I slept an average of 11 hours a day all weekend and barely did a thing.
I felt pretty bummed that I had slept all day, when I hadn’t finished all my goal stuff on New Year’s Eve either.
By the end of the weekend, when I still had basically nothing done, I thought, Oh no, the magic moment has passed.
It hasn’t, though. In one way, every day is like every other day. We each get 24 hours, and that’s the one and only thing that everyone has in common.
What I did, rather than write up all my plans like normal, was try to fit in the few things I had determined I would do. Mini actions. These are also known as ‘habits’ but I think that the word ‘habit’ has negative connotations. Action, maybe not so much.
One thing I did was to order a new Apple Watch to replace my old one, which is now over five years old. I’ve managed to crack the screen (ask me about my outrageously aggressive arm-swinging habits, which also involve having punched a fire hydrant). It’s also going dim in the middle, so that it doesn’t really serve as a watch anymore. Mainly I use it to unlock my computer in the morning.
It’ll take two weeks to get here, but that’s okay. In a way it gives me a fresh new start on trying to rebuild my baseline fitness. The only thing I really want this year is to feel that I’ve totally recovered from coronavirus.
Another thing I did was to start a new foreign language app (Speakly) and start doing 5-minute Italian lessons. If you’ve been following along, I was going to learn Dutch last year, but this app doesn’t have Dutch lessons, so *shrug* whatever. Next on the list.
This has been so much fun and so instantly rewarding that I’ve maintained a perfect streak so far. Normally I advocate for avoiding streaks in all situations (and I mean all) but especially in the sense of trying to attain instant perfection. Whatever we do, it’s more valuable if we do it 45% of the time than if we get discouraged and quit after skipping a couple days.
Io non parlo inglese!
In the app world, I also started logging my hydration and food intake again. It turns out I’ve been relentlessly dehydrated during the day. Logging my water helps me remember to make sure to drink water - it shouldn’t be 3 pm before I grab a glass. I’ve also had basically instant success with the food log, which is uplifting.
I took care of setting up a few appointments and ordering some stuff, since we were running out of shampoo and a few other things. I did manage to get the case of prescription parrot kibble, so that’s a relief. It’s hard to say what a big deal it feels like to do these 5- and 10-minute tasks when things are popping so much at work.
Sometimes it feels like a big deal just to start the robot mop, and how dumb is that?
Something that happened last year that I didn’t like was that the blog started to fall apart. I was posting more regularly when I was desperately ill than I have been since I got my job. This task that I can never quite seem to get to is to write up a list of topics and then schedule a few posts in advance, the way I used to do for years.
Part of the problem has been feeling like I’ve run out of things to talk about. It’s hard to figure out ways to talk about my cool new job without, you know, talking about it.
This is part of what I love about New Year’s. I have all these shiny new projects that I’d like to do, and I finally have enough energy recovered to attempt them. It gives me plenty to think about, and thus plenty to write about.
Not everyone likes making resolutions or having goals or projects. In fact, it seems like most people don’t, because they get so discouraged when they quit. I think this is because of unhelpful framing, lack of planning, and probably having a dark concept of what resolutions are for and how they work.
For me, it’s the light of my life.
When I was lonely and single after my divorce - I had a plan. I made over my bedroom to make space for a new love, and I started learning to cook - and then I got married again.
When I was flat broke and desperate - I had a plan. I went back to school, and I got a cruddy job, and I determined that I would focus on that job even if all I did was work, eat dinner, and go to bed. I paid off all my loans years early and the degree paid for itself the first year.
At a certain point, I didn’t have as many immediate fixes any more. I had more room to want to play around, go on adventures, and learn new things. This is of course when I started forcing difficult challenges on myself. Those have probably paid off most of all.
Could it be that I’m procrastinating on my big new personal challenge of beating my math anxiety? Perhaps.
Failing to live up to our own standards isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning. It’s recognizing that it’s better to have values and desired end goals than not to. It’s a reminder, one of many in a series, that we’ve chosen these purposes for reasons that are valid.
I haven’t finished all my planning for the year, even though it’s one of my favorite things, and that’s okay. The year is still pretty much brand new and we haven’t even cut the tags off yet.
A lifestyle upgrade is anything that makes your life better, easier, more comfortable, more interesting, more fun - or anything else that you decide is an improvement over whatever you had before.
This idea totally turned around how I think about my New Year’s planning. When other people hear ‘resolution’ they tend to think of something like “quit biting your nails.” I think “lifestyle upgrade.” What am I going to do next year that will be better than what I did this year?
Lifestyle upgrades can come in many forms.
You can get rid of an annoyance, and that will be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can change something you’re doing, even in a small way, and that could be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can replace an object or rearrange a room, and that could be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can learn to do something new, and that might be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can make a new friend, and that would most likely be a fantastic lifestyle upgrade.
It’s possible you could spend money and buy something that might be a lifestyle upgrade - but most of the best ones don’t cost anything at all. Some lifestyle upgrades can actually come from spending less money than you were before.
(An example of that might be learning to make better coffee at home instead of paying more for a to-go cup).
(But then again, if it streamlined your morning, spending more for the to-go cup each day might be the real upgrade).
The most important feature of a lifestyle upgrade is that it improves *your* life. It’s not necessarily something trendy that works for other people.
It’s not something you do in service to someone else, unless you truly thrive on that and it ripples back to you in some way.
A lifestyle upgrade is not something you feel like you “should” do to get an A+ on your report card.
The way you know you’ve hit upon a lifestyle upgrade is that you just really dig it. It becomes a habit almost immediately, because you realize you like it so much better than what you were doing before. An example would be throwing away your old flat brown pillow and replacing it with a new one that fits you exactly right.
If lifestyle upgrades cost anything at all, it’s funny how often it’s under $10. Like a new kitchen sponge.
I like focusing on lifestyle upgrades, because it’s the most upbeat and fastest way to demonstrate the value of doing an annual review, planning, and making resolutions.
These are some of the lifestyle upgrades that my hubby and I implemented in 2020.
We decided to only watch movies if they rated at least 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. There were just too many occasions when we watched something with a good preview, and it turned out to make no sense or have giant plot holes. Then it would turn out that this great movie we had been so excited about only rated a 55%. It is crazy how much of a lifestyle upgrade it is to quit watching lame movies.
We also decided to watch a documentary once a week. Usually the documentary is both funnier and more interesting than whatever fictional film we’ve chosen. Documentaries are usually also short.
I learned to cut my hubby’s hair, and then I learned to cut my own. Surprisingly satisfying.
We switched to a new boarder for my little gray parrot. They’re closer, better organized, nicer, cleaner, and they do a better job on grooming. My bird is much less stressed when she goes over there. I think they’re also maybe a dollar cheaper.
We gave away a bunch of stuff, including two tables, a box of wooden hangers, some books for the Little Free Library, and a distressed plant.
We rearranged the stuff on our tiny balcony and put up a planter and a hummingbird feeder. (Anniversary gift). This completely transformed, not just the outside space, but our living room too. Now we get three species of hummingbirds and four other species of passerines coming by from sunrise to sunset.
We started using a humidifier next to the bed at night. Almost instantaneously we both stopped having sneezing fits. It’s hard to say whether it was the dry air, distant wildfire smoke, or smog, but we hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten until it went away.
I moved our whiteboard to the hallway and hung it on the wall, instead of having it stand on a bookcase. It looks better where it is, it’s easier to use, and the space where it used to be looks much better without it. Moving it took a total of 15 minutes.
I rearranged the cabinets under the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink, the linen closet, and the fridge. Same space, same dinky apartment, totally new satisfaction when looking for stuff that is now easy to find.
We started getting produce delivered again, through the same service we’ve used off and on for ten years. Better for the farm, marginally less expensive, and it cuts our grocery trips in half. Hopefully that is safer for the grocery clerks, the delivery driver, our community - and us, of course.
We built Noelie a cardboard box fort. It started as one box, then two, then three. Now it’s four stories high and has six “rooms.” This has been a massive lifestyle upgrade for her, but also for us. It’s stupidly entertaining and it takes little more than assessing boxes while we sort the recycling.
We started going to a local park on the weekend when the weather is nice enough. This park is big enough that we can pick a spot to sit away from the paths, and nobody comes within thirty feet of us. It’s about a three-mile round trip. Hanging out there helps us feel like we got out and did something, and helps avoid the feeling that the walls are closing in. Since we started doing these walks, we’ve seen a few hawks, a coyote, and an owl.
We decided to stretch out our holiday meals and only cook a couple of dishes each night, rather than spend all day trying to replicate a buffet. Magic. We are definitely doing it this way forevermore.
I got a job! My first formal day job in over ten years. I knew I would want, no, NEED something to do during isolation, which I thought might last three years. It would give me a social outlet too. It has felt great to be back in the game, I’ve made friends, and it’s psychologically really meaningful to me to have life insurance on myself. I’m very busy and often pretty tired, but overall, getting a new job has probably been the biggest lifestyle upgrade of them all.
Notice that almost everything we did as a lifestyle upgrade is free of charge. A couple of things wound up saving us money, like going to the park on weekends instead of the movie theater. (Although that is a side effect of the same 2020 that everyone else has been having). The few things we bought, like the hummingbird feeder and the humidifier, can be purchased for under ten bucks).
Part of my New Year’s planning is to think of more lifestyle upgrades for the upcoming year. What lifestyle upgrades are you going to make?
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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