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.
Here we go again. I’m writing this a couple days ahead, feeling cruddy but with no idea what it is or how long it will last. All I know is that if I do have COVID-19 for a second time, I’m better off preparing ahead of time.
Why do I think I might have it again? 1. I feel tired and ill; 2. There are cases popping up in the news of reinfections, as well as people feeling better and then relapsing weeks later; 3. People don’t become immune to other members of the coronavirus family, so why assume we would from this one?
If I’m wrong, then I’ll have extra supplies. I can either use them for some other respiratory bug or share them with someone else. I can laugh at myself for being a worrywart. If I’m right... well, so far I have failed to over-prepare for a single thing during this pandemic.
The first thing I did was to take inventory of our medicine cabinet. I would not want to go through this the natural way, without modern pharmaceuticals, like some medieval person in a hut. I want Mucinex and Tylenol. Assuming it’s just me, I need enough supplies for 2x/day for at least three weeks. Last time, we ran out and there were shipping delays, but we got lucky and I managed not to miss any doses.
Next, I decided to order a pulse ox, a finger pulse oximeter. During my second week, I was gulping air and having a lot of trouble breathing. If that happens again, I’m not waiting, I’m going to try to get myself admitted to the hospital for at least a few hours with an oxygen mask. I figure I have a better chance advocating for myself if I have metrics.
The last time we went through all this, back in April, all this stuff was sold out. You couldn’t get a pulse ox - they were all marked up in price and back-ordered - in the same way that you couldn’t get masks or face shields or cleaning wipes or hand sanitizer. You could find Tylenol and Mucinex if you looked hard, just like paper towels and toilet paper. In some ways, it’s less scary to buy something like this and see a ship time of under a week.
These are the easy steps. Retail therapy. Let’s buy a consumer item and then everything will be all better, right?
The harder parts are playing through my memories of this illness and thinking back to what I need to do. Three months ago, I was deathly ill and pretty sure I would not live to see my birthday. Still not there yet. This is not fun to think about.
I should probably re-pack my hospital bag and leave it packed.
I should probably re-think my advance care directive. I was pretty adamant about the “do not resuscitate” part when I filled it out ten years ago. Now it seems fairly ordinary for a COVID patient to be in a coma for days or weeks, and then walk themselves out of the hospital. I’ll be 45 this week (*hope*) and I have as reasonable a chance as anyone else my age.
Last time, one of the many little annoyances was that I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t follow a plot, either in a novel or a movie. I’m prepared for this now. I realized I could have been listening to music and looking at streaming nature cams. I have a folder of those just in case.
I know a lot more this time around, because I’ve already been through this illness and because I’ve been avidly reading everything I could find about it for the last four months. I quit checking the daily statistics. I don’t feel like I need to read every single article about symptoms or transmission anymore.
I know I need to set alarms to remind me to take my pills on time, because last time, every time I slipped up by a couple hours, my symptoms would be worse for days.
I know I need to spend as much time as I can lying on my stomach, even though it makes my back stiff.
I also understand that if I do have COVID-19 again, I probably won’t skip through it in a few days. I’m psychologically preparing myself for a minimum of six weeks. I’m going to assume that I won’t be able to exercise for the rest of the year, or at least until Halloween.
Few things in my life have been as depressing, frustrating, and boring as having COVID-19. Trying to avoid lying on my back for at least twelve hours a day was really hard, exhausting, and demoralizing. I am not thrilled AT ALL to be facing this thing again.
Not thrilled to have to contemplate dying young either.
Worst of all is knowing that roughly 40% of my fellow Americans don’t think this thing is real. Either it’s a hoax or it’s no big deal. Even the person who originally infected me thinks it’s no big deal. I guess if I have three wishes right now, one of them would be that someone (who knows who she is) would go to her and say, “You really need to start taking this seriously now.” It’s not that I blame her for getting me sick; she couldn’t have known. It’s just important to me that if I die young, around my birthday, and pointlessly from this catastrophically managed pandemic... it’s important that it mattered to someone.
My other two wishes would be that everyone in my family is careful and stays safe, and that my husband finds love again and remarries. I hope he can use the life insurance money to buy a nice house and eventually be happy there, with a smiling woman by his side.
Of course I’d rather it be me, but what do you do?
I’m trying to be a good Stoic about this. There’s no reason for me to be untouched by plague when millions of other humans throughout history have died in this manner. I have no right to complain about it. Once I’ve made my preparations, it’s time to get on with life, patiently, pacing myself for the next three years or more that this thing will be with us.
Shortly after this posts, I have a phone appointment with a doctor. I’m definitely sick and my lungs are burning. Wish me luck.
Project 333 is the kind of great idea that doesn’t even feel like an idea. People tend to forget that someone like Courtney Carver actually innovated something. The more simple and elegant a solution is, the more it seems obvious - yet it sure wasn’t!
The premise of Project 333 is to take a break from what might be an out-of-control closet and only wear 33 items for three months. That’s where the ‘333’ comes from.
I know precisely one person - one of my clients - who probably has fewer than 33 items in her wardrobe.
Then there’s my husband. I just asked him, and since we’ve been WFH he has been using:
5 pairs of shorts
1 pair of shoes
= 11 items.
Carver’s book includes 33 chapters (of course) exploring the technicalities of the project. She offers a few examples of people who have tried it out, with lists of which items they included and what color.
This is fascinating stuff, and there could probably be a companion volume to Project 333 of just color grids of various people’s capsule wardrobes.
I used to be an inveterate thrift store shopper, and I had so many clothes that my closet rod snapped and dumped everything onto the floor. It turns out that being ‘organized’ and cramming everything in on special hangers is... heavy.
So was the unconscious burden of keeping clothes across six sizes, never knowing which size I’d be wearing three months later.
The more I worked with my people, the chronically disorganized and the hoarders, the more clarity I got about my wardrobe. I had a lot in common with my clients.
Buying things for the pattern or the fabric even if I didn’t wear them
Keeping gifts even if they didn’t go with anything else
Hanging onto old clothes even if they didn’t fit
Trying on several things, not realizing that most of them always wind up back in the pile
Always having a reason to keep something and never having a reason to let something go
I call this the ‘bottom up’ method. Look at what we have and work from there. What I gradually learned was a more systemic ‘top down’ method, figuring out what is actually needed.
The concept of designing a wardrobe was totally lost on me. This whole idea of choosing only things that work on my body type and interchange with each other... huh? How do people do that??
I’m exactly the audience for a book like Project 333.
Courtney Carver is right. Working with a minimal wardrobe really is better and easier. There are so many more interesting and important things to think about rather than what we’re wearing every day. Especially first thing in the morning, it’s a huge improvement to be able to grab something and feel right about it on the first try. Getting ready to start the day is one of the toughest times for the chronically disorganized. Project 333 is an ideal way to cut down on complications and have at least one area of life go smoothly.
Dress for the life you have right now, and you will move through it with more ease and grace.
One of the changes we’re making, as we prepare to ride out the next few weird years, is to find a sustainable way to avoid as many outside trips as possible. By ‘sustainable,’ we mean something a little different than what we used to mean, although farm delivery meets those criteria too.
Something we can afford
That fits our default lifestyle
Without a huge drain on mental bandwidth
Or massive time commitments
That we can do without fighting our mutual tendency to pack on weight
That doesn’t create extra trash
Yet also allows other people to earn a decent livelihood
In safe conditions
Including social distancing.
By my calculations, we can continue to get fresh produce delivered to our building every week, indefinitely.
We have been signed up with this service, Farm Fresh to You, a few times over the years. I canceled when we moved out of our newlywed house, not realizing that they keep expanding their service area. It hadn’t crossed my mind that we could sign up again in our new city, hundreds of miles away, until they sent me an email inviting us back.
That’s the sound of an AHA happening in my squirrelly brain.
I had been trying to figure out how to get groceries delivered, while feeling guilty and trying to calculate which risk was greater, my going out and possibly spreading infection myself, or hiring someone else who might have inadequate PPE. In my mind, one obvious solution to this issue is to quit allowing the public to enter the store, and have the grocers pick everything out, which used to be the norm well into the 20th century.
(If you’ve seen any episodes of Little House on the Prairie, that’s what stores were like. You pointed and someone else measured and wrapped everything up for you, in reusable packaging).
I actually think this is a direction that the grocery business will go, because it lowers liability and shrinkage, and a lot of people will be willing to pay for the convenience of not having to shop. The cashless, digital surveillance type will probably also become more common, and of course there’s always room for a more gentrified, boutique experience.
In the meantime, the miracle of the internet allows us to order produce directly from the farm and have it brought to us without the middleman.
There are a lot of CSAs out there. (Community-Supported Agriculture). It’s a way for the farm to guarantee a certain predictable level of income. Every year, an opportunity pops up with our farm to invest money directly for a discount on produce that year. It’s a real lifeline for new farms that might otherwise fail in the first few years.
Most CSAs will pack a bag or box, and you get what you get. That’s the commitment. If the only stuff that really grows well one year is rutabagas, then I hope you like rutabagas ‘cause guess what’s coming for dinner. The produce box comes whether you’re home or not, meaning you’re expected to pay even if you’re away. You’re also usually expected to pick up your produce yourself.
FFTY has been around long enough, as a multi-generational family business, that they’re able to offer a more customized experience. You can cancel weeks, you can cancel certain fruits or vegetables that you know you’ll never eat, and you can order extra of anything you like.
This place was the making of me as a healthy cook.
When I remarried, I took it pretty seriously. “You’re a wife and a mother now,” said this mammalian part of my brain, “so you’d better quit eating cereal for dinner and learn to cook.” I figured I’d get this vegetable subscription and figure out what to do from there.
The first time I got kale, collard greens, and chard in the same box, I had no idea which was which. I had to do an image search so I could tell them apart.
I tried so many vegetable recipes that first year, some that were kinda dreadful and some that were great. It took a long time to find a recipe with collard greens that we actually liked. That was around the time that I figured out how to cook chard stems properly and not just compost them. (Tear off the leaves, chop up the stems like celery, sauté them for an extra 2-3 minutes with garlic and Bragg’s aminos or soy sauce, then add the leaves and give it another couple minutes until emerald green).
Some of the motivation here is our little parrot Noelle, who starts wigging out when she sees the produce box. She lifts her foot in the air and waves: Who has eight thumbs and really really likes greens? She can eat a leaf as big as her entire body.
This whole experience is bringing back such a lot of happy memories from our first years of marriage!
I like the thought that a huge chunk of our groceries is coming directly from a family farm. I pray that everyone is able to stay safe and isolated. The drivers deliver everything overnight, to beat the heat, so they’re able to drop boxes off on people’s porches with no contact. Our spot along the route is around 1:00 AM. As far as I know, this is how they’ve always done it, a win on all sides.
This wouldn’t be a proper spiel without putting in my referral code ($15 coupon for you!). If you live somewhere in California, put in your zip code and see if you’re in the service area. It’s cheaper than you think and it’s a great way to support small-scale local farmers. And, of course, spend less time getting exposed at the grocery store.
This is Marie Kondo’s best book. I read it with a certain amount of trepidation, because I found several ideas in her previous books to be impractical or actively dangerous. It also amazes me that her clutter work is so broadly popular, because I have yet to see a hoarder like one of my clients actually complete the KonMari method. Joy at Work, on the other hand, should work for anyone.
Where this book shines is in its focus on time, rather than stuff. The reason for organizing papers or office supplies is to free up time, which can both improve one’s professional reputation and allow for an earlier end to the workday.
Joy at Work also highlights relationships and communication more than Kondo’s earlier books. Most of what constitutes “work clutter” is probably more about people irritating each other than about the arrangement of physical objects. This approach would be great for another household management book, if she ever chooses to write one.
There is a section on meeting management which obviously comes from someone with a full calendar. Here is an area where even one reader who is willing to share this material can delight everyone else in the office. Yes, let’s all have fewer and shorter meetings and excuse anyone who doesn’t need to be there.
The only thing that Joy at Work is missing, in retrospect, is a section on telecommuting. That could really be a book of its own, with chapters on how to balance homeschooling, electronic device sharing, and varied schedules. Maybe it could be called Joy in Spite of It All.
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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