I bought myself a new desk. I realized it was time to take myself a little more seriously.
I’m still in the same 4-foot-square corner of our living room. That part hasn’t changed. We live in a tiny apartment, and if I wanted more space for my desk it was going to mean a major overhaul of our living space.
While I do intend to lean into my job more, I don’t intend for that to come at the expense of the comfort of our downtime.
So if I’m still using the same amount of space as before, what was the point of buying a new desk?
What I had was a make-do desk. A little desk. A desk that, in its cuteness, asked, Please don’t mind me. I’ll just squeeze in right here and try not to be noticed. I had a desk that apologized for the space it took up.
When I bought it, I wanted somewhere for myself, a personal spot where I could stash my papers and occasionally sit to do some writing. We were in yet another tiny apartment, and there just wasn’t room for anything more imposing.
Something that imposed simply by existing.
The tiny apartment was my idea. I didn’t want to build our lifestyle around a long commute to my husband’s job. If we wanted to live close to site, then it followed that we would have a one-bedroom apartment.
We just both assumed that The Desk would go to The Earner. He needed to work from home sometimes, and that required a computer that would run certain software, and that meant a desktop PC, and that meant a certain amount of physical space.
None of these constraints are incorrect by any means.
What it leaves, though, are certain built-in parameters. After the desk, there is square footage available.
Some people work these variables with things like a loft bed, or a desk that folds down from the wall, or they don’t have a dining table or a couch. I’ve even seen someone use his living room for a two-man hammock.
My choices again, but I like having a dining table and a couch and a traditional bed.
It was my choice to buy myself an apology desk.
My little desk was fantastic for its original purpose. I loved how it looked and it could fit almost anywhere. I usually worked at a cafe, and I don’t think I ever sat at the little desk for more than an hour at a time.
That’s why I never noticed that it had terrible ergonomics.
Then I got a full-time job working from home. I thought, look at my little desk paying for itself!
Several months went by. I started feeling very crooked and lumpy.
It was impossible not to notice. My monitor was a few inches too high, but I couldn’t stand and work because the work surface was too low. I was sitting on my foot, trying to prop myself up to optimal height. I could never get comfortable.
The other issue was that I constantly had to swap out components depending on what I was doing. Set up my company laptop whenever I had a meeting, then move it again so I could use my keyboard and work, then swap everything out again an hour later.
I started fantasizing about a different desk, but I didn’t think one would fit in the available space. I wasn’t sure how I would want it to look. I felt too busy to spend all my spare time looking at furniture listings.
I tolerated a bad situation for months.
There are lessons to be learned here. How often do we tolerate situations that other people are not in, just because we feel too tired or burned out to do something different? Because we feel stuck and don’t know exactly what else to do?
Finally I had had enough. What was the point of earning money if not to spend it on life improvements?
This is a lesson I come back to again and again. If a problem can be solved with money, then solve it.
I got out a measuring tape and set to work. My available space was 48 inches across. Since I already had a tiny desk, surely there were other desks larger than that, yet still smaller than the big beasts I was picturing in my mind?
It did take me a couple hours of searching until I found something I liked that was small enough. It was flat, with no riser to prop up my monitor. Since I’m short, this is what I needed. A taller person might want to go the other way, adding a monitor riser or buying a different style to get the right ergonomics.
The desk shipped right away and arrived in the evening, three days later. I built it on my off Friday. It took about an hour to assemble, and two hours of rearranging all my stuff. It had been nearly a year since I built furniture from a kit, and I had forgotten how fun it can be.
The next day, I had a surprising case of delayed-onset muscle soreness from all the crouching and bending and lifting and turning bolts, but it was worth it. I loved how my new desk looked. The moment I sat down and looked at my monitor, I thought, Ahh, yes.
My cute little secretary desk is now crammed into the corner of our dining room. I refuse to let go of it. I still love how it looks, even though it’s so wildly inappropriate for a nine-hour workday. There’s nothing wrong with it as a desk - it’s just not suited to have a computer on it. One day, one day when we’ve moved somewhere else, the little desk will go in our bedroom where I can use it to write in my journal. I can separate my personal life from my work life just a bit more.
One day, having a little desk will no longer be an apology. It will be a way to take up a little more space for myself. I have plenty of work to do and I’m entitled to have somewhere suitable to do it.
I’m hoping everyone is being smart about Thanksgiving plans this week, you know, making sure we’re all still here to do it properly next year. It’s been on my mind a lot. I thought, what could we all do with the extra time off if we aren’t either traveling or getting ready for guests?
(Obviously I know not everyone gets Thanksgiving off - my family has eaten our meal on the Friday for over 30 years due to work schedules. Something to keep in mind, this year more so than others: what a luxury it is to be with family, even if you have mixed feelings about it).
The thing I came up with was to sort out all the rarely-used platters and serving dishes and kitchen gizmos that are only used on special occasions.
There are three things to do in the kitchen when it comes to this stuff.
One is to ask if you even want it, much less use it at all.
The second is to get rid of, fix, or reunite the pieces of anything that has issues.
Third is to rearrange everything based on whether you wish you used it more often or whether it’s driving you nuts and getting in the way all the time.
There is literally never a good time to do this kind of chore. If it were easy and obvious, it would have happened already. I’ve been asking myself this question about my book collection:
If I’m not going through it in 2020, of all years, when will I ever??
Clutter can be a minor tragedy. We tend to gather objects that represent a wish, something we would ideally like to be doing or to have as part of our lifestyle. The accumulated stuff then fills up the *space* we would need to actually do that thing.
Examples: The garage so full of tools and supplies that it can’t be used as a workspace. The sewing room so full of fabric that nothing can be made. The shed (and yard) so full of stuff that no gardening is being done.
And, of course, the kitchen so full of stuff that nobody can cook.
My available counter space is typically about 2’x3.’ That because we have lived in tiny apartments for the past five years. There’s nowhere to put anything like a kitchen island or a butcher block or a rolling cart or a baker’s rack. The space we have is the space we have, and that’s why I keep our pantry staples in the fridge.
What do I keep on my counter?
Other people keep astonishing amounts of stuff on their counters and dining tables. This is what I usually see:
A cookie jar
A stand mixer
Both a toaster and a toaster oven
A crock of utensils
Soda cans or bottles
Cooking oil, spice jars, etc.
A coffee maker, sometimes two
Dirty dishes, of course
Random junk that wandered in from elsewhere
Four of those items I don’t even own, but the rest can indeed be found in my tiny little kitchen that has only two dinky drawers.
This is because my husband and I take turns cooking, and the focus for us has always been having enough space to actually make the food.
We’re maniacs. We make our own jam. We have a couple dozen canning jars in our kitchen. The canning equipment stays on a high shelf in the linen closet, because it only gets used a few days a year. This is an important principle: Store things based on how often you use them, not necessarily “where they fit.”
What goes where?
We have a cabinet above the fridge. It always fascinates me what people keep up there, because that space is so challenging to reach. That is where I keep all our baking equipment, including various sizes of muffin tins, loaf pans, a Bundt cake pan, springform cake pans, pie pans, and even a cupcake caddy. Most people keep their baking stuff in a low cabinet, where it’s easy to reach, but how often are most people baking fancy desserts on the average weeknight?
I keep my serving dishes in the same cabinet where we keep the plates, bowls, and glasses. All our plastic storage containers and their lids are there, too, basically because we only have two cabinets. Same stuff as everyone else, just less of it.
In most kitchens, there are plenty of cabinets, but they are chock-full of coffee mugs and plastic cups and plastic travel coffee cups. This has always mystified me. Cupboards go to things that are almost never used, so stuff that does get used has to sit on the countertop instead.
What if I told you there was triple the amount of stuff in your kitchen than it was designed to hold?
Not everyone has the problem with the unintentional multiplication of plastics. For some, it’s more of a shopping hobby that got out of hand. That shopping hobby might be their own, or it might be someone else’s, someone who uses gift-giving as a sort of pressure valve for their own habit. For some reason, this category of person often fixates on holiday decorations and special occasions. Anything holiday-related becomes instantly full of special spiritual qualities that mean it must be kept forever.
This is why Thanksgiving is such a good time to reevaluate all the fancy cooking gear. Can it all realistically be used at one meal?
Another thing to reevaluate at the time of cooking fancy foods is the recipe collection. I’m willing to bet that the majority of home cookbooks have never been used at all, and almost all the rest are kept for one or two specific recipes. Scan the ones you use and get your counter space back.
Not sure who needs to hear this, but: You don’t have to keep any of it. Not everyone cooks at all. I read about a woman who used her kitchen cabinets to store her books; she didn’t even own any pots or pans because she never cooked at home. It’s not against the law. You can do that.
The emphasis on any holiday should be on enjoying yourself and doing the things you like to do to relax. If one of those things is cooking, then is your kitchen serving you? Or is it really a kitchen-shaped storage unit?
Whatever else you do this week, keep the focus on what works for your household and take a moment to reconsider what doesn’t.
Stay safe, be well, and start planning now for Thanksgiving 2021!
If you’re looking for a clutter book, they tend to come in three types. There’s the type written by the ‘born organized’ person who loves label makers; there’s the reformed hoarder; and then there’s the seen-it-all professional who has clearly borne witness to all kinds of family drama. Peter Walsh is that third type. Let It Go is the book to get if your struggle with clutter is easy compared to the struggle over it with your relatives.
By the way, that first type of organizer? Is a lot like a young trainer at the gym who has never had an injury or carried extra weight. They may have studied hard and they may have a lot to offer, but there’s a certain level of emotional connection that may not happen.
What distinguishes Let It Go from other clutter books is that it has guidelines for how to have certain types of discussions with family in specific situations. Walsh even offers some personality types that are relevant in all scenarios, not just dealing with clutter, and will undoubtedly provoke some amusing reactions. This may be a “mind blown” perspective shift for a lot of people who know their family makes them crazy, they just aren’t sure exactly why.
Any organizing book can tell you to sort your stuff, toss some, and donate the rest. These books are very helpful for the literary type who aren’t hindered by emotional attachments but more by executive function issues, like categorizing or sorting what “belongs” in which room. This book stands out because it has so much solid advice on, frankly, negotiating with the family wingnuts.
I’ve been thinking about clutter and minimalism lately because a friend of mine finally called me for coaching after a three-year standing offer. Why? Her elderly dad is coming to visit for the first time in many years, and she wants to impress him. It wasn’t getting evicted for failing her habitability check that did it; it wasn’t the offer of free help; it was love. This is what we should keep in mind when we sort our stuff: Who are we doing it for, and are we as careful to preserve the stories as we are the heirlooms? Are we keeping the right legacy alive?
Many items you need to shed are firmly glued to you with a sticky layer of memories, sadness, anxiety, and guilt.
Always remember that the stuff you own influences how you think.
How many of us ever thought we’d wind up needing a desk for every person in the household? So suddenly?
This is a subject that tends to come up a lot, because everyone at my work was sent home to work for the indefinite future - with no notice. They’ve been continuously hiring, too, so all the new people like me were expected to provide all our own equipment.
Can I just say that sitting in a wooden folding chair for two weeks was a great way to bond with my work partner?
And also to perhaps permanently alter the shape of my caboose?
(Not sure about hers)
(Never seen it)
We’ve all been told to plan to work from home at least through the end of 2020. Personally I plan on things remaining more or less how they are through the beginning of 2023. I’d rather be wrong, of course! But it’s psychologically much easier for me to plan just to keep on keepin’ on for three years.
Same apartment, same job, same schedule, same... furniture?
I’ve heard a lot of stories about the truly pitiful situations that a lot of people have found themselves in, and the time has come to acknowledge them and take action.
By this I mean, yes, of course, we can’t have hundreds of thousands of people evicted and living in the streets. What utter nonsense. Just restructure everyone’s debts, from the banks and the mortgages on down. If I owned rental property right now, I’d definitely rather have a grateful, loyal tenant keeping guard over my biggest asset than an empty shell crying out for squatters, vandalism, and who knows what else.
That being said. This is about all the office workers and students who are suddenly finding themselves trying to get a full day’s work done amid a total and complete lack of ergonomics.
I’ve spent the last three months working full-time in a corner of our living room that is precisely four feet square. I measured it.
It doesn’t take much square footage to get in the zone and get some quality work done. It does, though, take a flat surface and somewhere decent to sit. This is quite clear in my mind as I gaze lovingly at the office chair I bought with my stipend from work. I assembled it before bedtime, since it arrived at 9 PM, because I couldn’t bear to wait for it one more day. My poor flat and striped bottom.
You know I used to work with hoarders?
One of the things that always boggled my mind was how so many people could fill rooms from floor to ceiling with ‘bargain’ items, all bought for $1-5, and then feel like they Could Not Afford anything. Anything! I would point out that if you have a hundred things you bought for a dollar, then in one way or another, at some point, you had a hundred dollars. If you had twenty things you bought for five bucks, then you had a hundred bucks. If you in fact had five hundred things (balls of yarn, sets of markers, stuffed animals, shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, etc etc etc) then you probably had enough cash flowing through your life to buy a nice piece of furniture.
What would it be?
A replacement for your lumpy, sagging old mattress? Or a bed frame to get it up off the floor?
A big bookshelf?
In this particular case, I’m changing the frame on this a bit. The concept here is not that there may be enough money for something nice, rather than a large pile of small objects. The concept is that there is probably enough space in the home for a desk of some kind, if some other objects are removed.
Keep in mind, I have lived in a space smaller than 800 square feet for the past five years. Currently we are at 650 square feet.
Three apartments back, I gave away a bookshelf on Craigslist to make space for the little secretary desk that I have now. There was no room in our apartment otherwise. My choices were: in front of the oven (blocking the fridge), inside the bathtub, or in front of our door. Or simply get rid of the bookcase and make space for something I use every day. Our next apartment was even smaller, so the commitment and the trade paid off.
I had a desk before, of course. It was made from a top I bought at IKEA for $12. I bought it because it was the biggest desktop I could find, which made it obsolete when we downsized.
See, I would never suggest that someone else do something I am not willing to do myself.
I got rid of something that was once very important to me, a bookcase I assembled myself and moved half a dozen times. It used to contain my cookbook collection, which I have since digitized. In the physical space where I had that bookcase, I now have a little desk.
It’s possible to put together a makeshift desk, or create a study/work area, without using a piece of furniture. One of my coworkers has a TV tray that she uses on the couch. I’ve seen photos of other people working in the driver’s seat of their car - not driving for a living, just sitting out in the driveway for some privacy - or on cushions on the balcony.
A lot of people are using their dining table. I know from my home visits that about 90% of dining tables are used for storage 364 days of the year. This is what I mean by trading for a desk. If all that stuff goes away, then someone has somewhere to sit and work. My husband, stepdaughter, and I have all worked together for days on end, sitting at the same dining table, and that location alone might solve a lot of problems for a big family.
My bestie and I both have bathtub trays, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we both have the habit of sometimes working while we soak. (Me, on personal projects - her, I won’t ask so I don’t have to tell).
A lot of households have completely viable furniture that could be a desk for someone. Maybe something weird, but still something about the right height that has a flat surface. An end table, a coffee table, a dresser, a kitchen counter, a rolling toolbox? An actual desk? A lot of households also have plenty of square footage for someone, either in the garage or an extra bedroom or some other place. When I was a newlywed in my first marriage, I had my desk set up in the walk-in closet next to the bathroom. Bookcase and filing cabinet in there, too.
Stephen King wrote Carrie in the laundry room. Thomas Wolfe was very tall, so he stood and wrote his books on top of his fridge.
The thing here is to value humans and human activity over any random pile of stuff.
Marie Kondo told everyone to make sure your stuff ‘sparks joy.’ I say it’s more important to build your personal environment around the stuff you like to do. Everyone in the house should have physical space to sleep, bathe, eat meals, stretch, relax, make things, and (now, alas) study or work at home. Any clutter that is in the way should be removed so the people can simply do their thing.
If there isn’t room for you or for anyone else in your home to get your work done, look around and figure out where it could happen. We might be here for a while.
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.
When I read the term “hose-down house” in an article in an architecture magazine, I thought, “Is that a thing?” Because that’s exactly my goal for my own home, and what a great way to describe it. If there were a way to install a set of sprinklers in the ceiling and clean my place overnight like a car wash, I’d already have it done. Hose it down and hope the door latches behind me when I go out to do something more fun.
This is the opposite of what I find on home visits. My people want no part of automated cleaning. This is partly because they automatically resist new ideas; for instance, every time I say I like ebooks they will say they like paper books. It’s not a debate? Nobody is making you try new things? The main reason, though, is that it would take a lot of setup before their homes could be cleaned this way.
Take the dishwasher, for example. Not everyone has one, but they have been a common feature of houses and apartments for at least forty years now. They’re more energy efficient and sanitary than washing by hand. You can even buy a countertop or rollaway model for around the same price as a stand mixer. I’m in love with mine since I didn’t have access to one until I was past thirty.
My people see them as an obstacle, if they use them at all.
In a chronically disorganized house, it is never clear whether the dishwasher is clean, dirty, or empty. It’s nobody’s job on any given day. There are far, far too many dishes to fit in it and many or most of them are not dishwasher-safe, or at least nobody is too sure. Even though there is this marvelous dishwashing robot ready to please waiting in the kitchen all day, nobody wants to feed it.
Another example is the robot vacuum. I’ve been using mine for nearly a decade now, and I also have a robot mop. THE BEST. Yes, I’m privileged, and yes, these items also cost less than a smartphone. Amortized over several years, they’re less than a store-brand soda habit. I might also point out that my household doesn’t have a car, and that frees up a lot of folding money.
Since we have a parrot and a dog, our floors are a constant mess. Feathers, muddy paw prints, kibble crumbs, you name it. Every time we leave for an errand or go to the movies, we get ready to clean the floors. This means picking up the dog bowls and checking for dangling cables. One of us can do this while the other puts the critters in their crates and checks the bus schedule.
In a chronically disorganized home, this is not happening. My people aren’t even attracted to the idea. Why? What’s on their floors? Anything and everything!
Laundry and lots of it
Stacks of magazines
Stuff that fell over
Here we start to understand that the problem is not in acquiring the robot vacuum, which many people could suggest as a holiday gift. The problem is that the floor of every room is considered a viable storage area. It’s not a cleaning problem, it’s a tidying problem.
Putting things away that don’t even exist in a hose-down household like mine - that’s the problem.
There’s no laundry on my floor because we don’t own enough clothing between us to cover our floor. If we didn’t do laundry at least once a week, we’d have to wear it twice, and we’d constantly be covered in dog hair.
Flat surfaces are the main aspect of what, architecturally, would be considered a hose-down house. Kitchen counters, bathroom counters, the dining table, coffee table, end tables, and desks. While I have been known to use my robot mop on the kitchen counters, when we had a normal-size suburban ranch house, that would be overkill in the sub-900-square-foot places we’ve had since. When your kitchen counter is one foot square, all it takes is a swipe with a rag.
I guarantee that I could wipe down my kitchen counters, dining table, and bathroom counter in under one minute. Not only that, I could do them in a direct path and probably take only fifteen footsteps.
The reason is that we don’t pile things up on our tables or countertops. We don’t even own a coffee table because they are clutter magnets and I got tired of stubbing my toe.
What makes a hose-down house is the absence of clutter.
When there’s nothing in the way, it’s quick and easy to clean everything. When every room is filled with stuff, it’s complicated and exhausting.
The kitchen is full of double what it could reasonably store, so there’s no “away” for the dishes. The sink is always full and the counters are always covered. There are special wooden or pottery items that can’t go in the dishwasher. The chore known as “washing dishes” could take an hour or more because it only gets done every three days.
The floors are covered with laundry. The bathroom has eighty-seven bottles. Every other surface is covered with mail and other papers. For some reason, there are always shopping bags that someone went out and bought but nobody opened afterward.
Another problem is sheer size. My current place is 650 square feet, home to two adults and two messy pets. We haven’t had more than 900 square feet in five years. Prior to WWII, this was standard for middle-class families, and it still is in most parts of the world. Anyone living in a post-Brady Bunch-sized home simply has a lot more room to clean, or to clutter up.
I can wipe down all my flat surfaces in a minute, empty the dishwasher in four, clean my bathroom in ten, and run the dishwasher and vacuum while I go to the gym. That’s my hose-down house. Why would I want anything else?
It comes up a lot. People generally can’t believe that a married couple our age are voluntarily choosing to rent instead of own a home. One of our young ones came over on open house night, and blurted out, “You guys RENT??” Like it had completely violated his impression of us or something!
That’s generally how you know you’ve hit upon a truly contrarian position. Nobody understands it or why you’re doing it. Young or old, rich or poor, artist or business professional, nobody gets it.
You don’t... own... a car?
You... don’t... drink coffee?
You... actually like... the middle seat?
Personally, I do weirder things, like using chopsticks with my non-dominant hand, and nobody notices that stuff at all. Most of the time people are just thinking about themselves, that or their phone.
You can get away with A LOT in plain sight. People may give feedback in one form or another, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention or base your major strategic decisions on their opinion. Especially if you think the common denominator isn’t working for most people.
Default: tired, broke, cluttered
To sum up, our strategy is to rent a tiny apartment, use public transport, and max out our retirement contributions. Literally anyone in the world can live in a small space and not own a car. This is not elitist. It’s about the complications you are willing to tolerate.
What are the three basic home-owning strategies?
Ideally we would love #1. We live in Southern California right now, and we agree that it’s paradise. It’s a combination of a beautiful place with a great climate, ready access to fascinating work opportunities, and a culture that suits us. Unfortunately, buying an amazing house where we live costs about 4x as much as the same house somewhere else.
We understand #2, and we know precisely how to do it. We are both tool-oriented DIY types, part of our initial attraction to one another. One of our few continual quarrels revolves around who gets to assemble new furniture. The problem with this strategy is that all your free time, evenings, weekends, and holidays, goes to fixing up the house. It becomes your only hobby, that and accidentally breaking some drywall.
#3, geographic arbitrage, is something else we understand. Pack up and go somewhere else, like... Belize? Our biggest problems with this strategy are 1. Jobs, 2. Our pets, and 3. Choosing one place. Quite frankly we would only go in this direction at the point of retirement, and neither of us really believes in retirement as a thing.
Oops, another hot take! Let’s save that one for a different day.
The biggest problem with owning a house is that nobody wants to talk about the externalities.
The closing costs, the annual maintenance costs, the higher utility bills and other hidden costs, the extra chores of yard work and housework, the risk position, the house becoming a character in your story and demanding things, like extra furniture.
Risk position! There are NO GUARANTEES that you won’t need extensive wiring work, plumbing repairs, and a new roof, just as you find out you have a cracked foundation... and then you get hit with a major natural disaster shortly after finishing it all. When you own a house the buck stops with you.
People will try to talk you into home ownership in the same way they try to talk you into having children, or adopting a cat. They won’t talk about all that stuff like burst pipes, teething, or the cat barfing on your bedspread. “It’s different when they’re yours!” Yep, my point exactly.
The main reason that my husband and I haven’t bought a house is the way mortgages are structured. The loan is front-loaded, and almost everything you pay for the first five years is interest. You aren’t building equity. Due to our strategic position on career growth, we haven’t felt that we could guarantee we would stay in one city for five years. We decided that before we got married, and in point of fact, we were right.
If we had chosen the house over the career opportunities, we would have had to pass up several promotional choice points. We’d be making 50% less money, and, to be honest, I would probably be tired of the house and constantly being in Remodel Purgatory.
It’s my nature. If I lived in the fanciest house on the entire planet, there would be something I didn’t like about it, and I would want to either rearrange all the furniture or remodel something. I don’t have it in me to just fall in love with one specific building and want it to never change.
There are other home-ownership strategies out there, and probably room for more, because anything can be modified or disrupted. For instance, a lot of people live with their parents and save money, and someone could probably do something similar while house-sitting. Another common one is to live in a granny unit or put in a garage or basement apartment, get tenants for the main house, and use their rent to pay down the mortgage. Or get a job that includes housing, like working on a cruise ship or at a fire watch tower, and save as much money as possible.
One day, we might buy a house. We’d do it when we had fallen in love with that city, when we had a sense of knowing about that property, when we had nothing better to do with our copious spare time. When that will be, only time will tell. In the meantime, yeah, we rent. What’s it to you?
Cozy Minimalist Home is the book I wish my clutter clients would all read. I’m always trying to get them to consider how they use their space rather than how they feel about each and every single object they own. This lavishly illustrated book shows us how it’s done. Myquillyn Smith explores how to design cute, comfortable, stylish rooms that focus on function rather than tons of decorative items. She suggests that it’s better to focus on the room as a whole, rather than specific objects. The results are charming and convincing.
We really can have “more style with less stuff.” Smith suggests that we start by creating one sane space for the household to hang out and relax, even in the midst of large remodeling projects. No matter what else is going on in the other rooms, there needs to be somewhere for regular daily life to go on.
Moving and redecorating are serious undertakings, rife with pitfalls. Smith finds a lot of comedy here. “This is real life. There would be no buying all new furniture like they do on TV.” She deals with the realization that she’s been dragging a lot of decor through multiple moves, only to find that it isn’t doing her home any favors. The money she had spent on small things could have been saved up for larger pieces she would have liked better.
Smith is relatable and really funny. She voices so many contradictions and frustrations: wanting to streamline and wanting to shop; feeling attracted and repelled by the same style; aiming for domestic harmony and hospitality while wanting the home done her way. She doubts her own design choices, and even her decision to buy a house that she doesn’t absolutely love.
How to deal? Smith becomes Chief Home Curator. Like most of us, she has to solve problems of her own creation, sorting through a mountain of stuff that she herself chose and brought home. She learns to “quiet the room” and scrap previous design attempts before finally working out something that she and her family can love. Generally, what they like has greater design impact while using and displaying far fewer things.
One of the best and most endearing features of Cozy Minimalist Home is the appendix with Before and After photos of Smith’s rooms. She shares what was going on behind the scenes as photos were staged for the book. This focus on process is so helpful for readers who don’t know where to start in their own homes, making the endeavor feel more possible.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a very practical book. It teaches the fundamentals of design, starting with what order to paint, buy furniture, choose window treatments, and hang pictures. For absolute beginners, there are useful discussions on how to discover your own style, create pinboards, and plan rooms. This is a beautiful and useful book that can build confidence and a sense of possibility in even the most nervous novice.
Just because we know perfection isn’t the goal doesn’t mean we don’t long for—and need—function and beauty.
My dirty little secret was that my stuff was draining me.
If I was so good at finding great deals, why didn’t I trust that I could find them a year or two later and not lug all that cute stuff with me from house to house?
Doesn’t an empty kitchen counter seem like the most extravagant luxury?
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
I met an interesting character the other day. We struck up a conversation while waiting at a stoplight. By the time we had crossed the street and walked through the park, we had managed to interview each other and exchange some interesting ideas.
Living on the pier is a crossroads of humanity. There’s a constant flow of families, dog walkers, transients, drunks and drug users, tourists, musicians, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, young couples, barefoot surfers in wetsuits, students on field trips, retirees, and also a few neighbors. It’s busy here. It’s also not unusual to bump into someone who is at leisure at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.
Wealthy people look different. It’s basically impossible to fake that posture, haircut, skincare regimen, wardrobe, and aura of prosperity, just like it would be pretty challenging to fake the hard-worn look of someone who has spent years sleeping rough.
I’ve learned this through having lived in many different neighborhoods over the years. I don’t particularly prefer to live among the wealthy. They spend a lot of time talking about things that bore me senseless, like where they bought stuff, what their yapper dog is up to these days, and how “good help is so hard to find.”
They also can’t usually relate to why my husband and I live in a studio apartment and don’t have a car.
That’s what made this conversation so interesting. We discovered we were both strangers in a strange land.
It basically went like this:
“What a gorgeous place”
“Another day in paradise”
“I’m new in town”
“Were you here for the butterfly migration?”
Blah blah blah
“I live on a sailboat”
“Oh, are you a nomad?”
“I don’t know what I am, what’s that?”
“There are a lot of people who are financially independent, who travel around the world, it’s a thing”
“Are you one of them?”
That’s when we started comparing strategies and a few numbers. “What’s your efficiency?” he asked. By that I understood that he meant what we call “the nut” or monthly overhead.
“You should live on a sailboat,” he said. It costs him $1600 a month to stay at the marina (right next to our apartment complex) and apparently it comes with access to a gym and a steam room and stuff.
He went over what it took to manage such a feat, how he learned to sail various types of boats, starting with the very smallest size and working his way up in complexity.
I asked how old he was when he learned to sail, and he said he started about ten years ago, which both did and didn’t answer my question. I gather that he was at least in his thirties when he suddenly decided, Hey, I should learn to sail. That somehow turned into, Hey, I should live on a boat, sail from Canada to San Diego, and figure out where I want to settle down. Or not.
I have my own opinions about all this, of course. I’m not a strong swimmer and I can only really manage myself in a canoe or a kayak. I have read quite a lot of nautical adventures, though, and that’s why I asked a few more questions.
“What do you do in the winter? What about when it storms?”
“I haven’t done this over the winter yet,” he admitted. Ugh.
I told him I wanted to go to sea as a child, that my fantasy was to become a “cabin boy” and that I was very disappointed to learn that wasn’t a job anymore. At least, I was disappointed when I was nine. As a middle-aged woman, going through a tropical storm in a sailboat of any size sounds pretty darn dreadful.
There are other factors, too. I don’t know this man’s story, or why he’s suddenly free to sail down the length of North America alone. Was he married before? Does he have kids? Is he retired? Is he actually F.I. or is he burning through cash reserves while he bounces back from divorce, getting fired, or losing a lawsuit? Who knows?
Me, I live with a man, a dog, and a parrot. Noelle would probably love being on a sailboat and smooching kids at the marina, shaking out her nice red tail feathers. Our frail, ill, elderly dog would not enjoy himself at all. Could my husband and I deal with sharing a tiny ship cabin, a tiny ship stove, a tiny ship heater, and of course the tiny ship’s head, with the shower spraying on the toilet? Eh, maybe, maybe not.
We actually are the type of married couple who could probably do well while living on a sailboat. We’re already minimalists. We’re good at what we call Pack-Fu, or the art of fitting objects carefully into a tight space. We’ve spent weeks backpacking and sharing a tent together. We’re both handy with tools and we have the kind of discipline that is needed to stay on top of leaks and mildew. We do, of course, also love money and the saving thereof. Paying an “efficiency” of $1600 a month sounds pretty great!
It sounds great until we factor in the part about buying a small, used seafaring vessel. “It’s like an RV,” I say to this sailor/retiree I’ve just met, and he agrees. In my mind, that means it’s high maintenance, hungry for repairs, expensive to fuel, and hard to park. You’re stuck with it, like it or not, and it can be hard to find a buyer when you realize it isn’t your dream of an easy, relaxing retirement after all.
What a great fantasy, though! If you don’t like your neighbors, you can simply sail away. Sail away from thoughts of trouble, sail south when storm clouds gather at the horizon. Sail away toward... toward what, exactly?
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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