HOT MESS // Stuff Isn’t Self-Care

I’d like to propose a moratorium on advertising a product with the phrase “self-care” effectively immediately.

By all means, let’s care for ourselves. Let’s commit to the activities and the relationships that make us feel our most healthy, vital, and purposeful. Let’s limit our expenditure of time and energy on things that make us feel terrible. 

But self-care, like self-respect and self-confidence, is intangible. Every time we impulse buy yet another eyeshadow palette or scented candle because #selfcare, we ends up contributing not to our health and wellness but to our cortisol-raising clutter. 

We all already know what true self-care entails: sleeping and eating better, exercising, communicating our needs and boundaries, utilizing our strengths through work or volunteering, eliminating clutter, learning and creating.

And we can make purchases towards those ends, but of services rather than stuff.

We can purchase a session with a psychologist, a personal trainer, a financial planner, an organizer, a massage therapist, an instructor. 

The difference is that in making these kinds of purchases, we don’t accumulate a bunch self-care gear, but we do dedicate time for our needs and goals.


HOT TIP // Stores as Museums

We were recently batching several household errands, which included getting a frame at Michael’s. 

Now, Michael’s is a weakness for me. I briefly considered staying in the car, but seeing as summer in Baltimore makes such a thing unbearable, I decided to go in to Michael’s as if it were something akin to an art museum.

Treating a store as a museum means browsing without buying. We don’t consider the objects displayed in an art museum available for purchase. We appreciate their beauty and design without feeling compelled to take them home with us. 

This mindset was helpful in the aisles of fibers, gear I aspire to use. I’d love to be the type of person who knits or needlepoints but my creative pursuits are almost exclusively left-brain things like writing this blog and optimizing kitchens. Know thyself.

I still enjoyed meandering through the displays of colorful yarn and embroidery floss, knowing that these items were not for me to buy the same way the BMA’s collection of Matisse is not for me to buy. 

In an art museum, we don’t touch anything on display. In fact, we stand a respectable distance away from the objects. I believe that touching an item gives us a tiny sense of ownership, and most of my past impulse buys stemmed from picking something up and only putting it back down on the checkout conveyor belt. 


So I looked at the journals, the sharpened Ticonderoga pencils, the Pilot G2 .07 point pens (stuff that I would realistically use if I didn’t already have plenty at home) with my hands clasped behind my back like a Very Serious Art Critic, knowing that all school supplies are on my nopping list until further notice.

I didn’t walk out of Michael’s with any impulse purchases or aspirational clutter, and I actually had a lot of fun appreciating things that a chain of smart and hardworking people designed, manufactured, and displayed. 

Things can be beautiful and useful AND stay at the store. 


HOT TIP // Organize for the Sporadic

My last few weeks have included some irksome little “unexepecteds.” Dead car battery. Flooding in that ridiculous thunderstorm. The like.

You know the sort of things I’m talking about, because they’ve happened to you, too.

I try to avoid using the words “unexpected”or “unpredictable” because I can be confident that, at some point, my car or my house will need repair, or I’ll feel under the weather, or something urgent will pop up.

I prefer instead to call these “sporadic.” They happen irregularly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect them. 

Now, it could be argued that I spend TOO MUCH time thinking about what could go wrong. #neurotic. But getting my life together while things are going smoothly means I’m less frazzled when those sporadic things inevitably come to pass. 


Take the dead car battery:

I have my morning choreography down. My closet prime real estate is filled with my life uniform essentials. I can find what I need every morning because I follow curfew every night. And so, I have a nice cushion of time in the mornings before I have to leave the house.

Which meant that when my car wouldn’t start, I could wait for a Lyft and still be on time. (Plus, my husband called the tow truck company for me because 1. he’s the best and 2. we have a strict, egalitarian distribution of household tasks.)

I use YNAB to regularly budget for sporadic expenses so I can absorb the cost when they inevitably come up. So, I could pay Eastern Car Care without asking Steve to wait two weeks to cash my check. I didn’t have to choose between the Lyft rides and groceries for the week. This is undoubtedly linked to my economic privilege, but being prudent and provident certainly helps. 

Same with the flooding:

About two weeks before water got into my basement, I heard from a friend after helping her clear out hers. She was grateful that we tackled the boxes from her move when we did, because they would have been destroyed in a recent flood had we not. 

Reminded of this totally predictable fact of life that basements tend to flood,  I descended into my own basement and weeded some leftover wedding items, some redundant camping equipment, and consumable supplies.

I stored the remaining essentials in plastic bins on metal shelves, about an inch off the ground. When the water seeped in from the flooded street, I only needed to mop it up and run the fan to get things back in order. I was so grateful for the gift past-me gave present-me, and I’m doing a solid for future-me by consistently funding my house maintenance fund each month (did I mention I love YNAB?!) and by owning only what I need, use, and love.


HOT MESS // Chore Wheels

I’m pro-chore. Even children (and childish adults) should, at a bare minimum, put away their own belongings and clean laundry.

But chore wheels suck, because they work against human nature.

Imagine if we went to work each Monday and spun a wheel to determine our job responsibilities for that week. How soon before we felt frazzled and unproductive? How soon before tasks were done poorly or skipped entirely? 

Self-determination theory suggests that in order for a person to feel motivated at work they need to feel mastery, relatedness, and autonomy. Housework is no different. 

Mastery:

We can’t master something without doing it repeatedly. If the chore we’re expected to do changes every week, we don’t get the chance to integrate that task into our routines, get really good at it, and complete it habitually and efficiently. 

If we only do a task ¼ of the time, we’ll only be ¼ as good at it.  

Relatedness:

We don’t feel like we’re relating well to the other members of the household if we think we’re the only ones pulling our weight.

We need to have the “fair distribution” conversation with the people we live with, and use transitions as a cue to revisit and refine. Talking about chores ensures that we’re aware of, and grateful for, each other’s contributions.

Autonomy: 

We can’t feel autonomous if we don’t really have a say in our household tasks, and if our work is criticized by others. We all have personal preferences, standards, and neuroses, and chores should be divvied up with them in mind, not by the whims of a wheel.

I love managing money, having a freshly made bed, cooking to unwind in the evenings, and folding a basket of warm laundry while watching a movie, so I always do those tasks.

I virtually never wash dishes, clean the kitchen, make breakfast, take out the trash and recycling, or contact repair people unless my husband is out of town. He’s also the only reason our small army of houseplants survive. 

We both have some chores we don’t love, but we got to choose them for ourselves. We’re both responsible for tidying our items before curfew, and we’ll tackle a task for each other when we’re busy or ill. 

Our minimalist lifestyle means there’s less stuff to clean and tidy in the first place, but the main reason we’ve achieved egalitarian household harmony is clear, consistent ownership of tasks that give us a sense of mastery, autonomy, and relatedness.


HOT TIP // This First 

During my Eat All the Things challenge, I came across a photo of a pantry with an Eat This First bin. I quickly repurposed a wooden box to make one of my own.


I didn’t bother to label mine, although I might if I had children. I temporarily let the bin live on my counter as a prompt to reach for this food before reaching for something unopened or non-perishable. 


In went the already-opened bag of granola, the soon-to-be overripe fruit, the soon-to-be expired canned goods. I also added some consumable gifts that weren’t close to expiration, but didn’t fit neatly into my existing pantry management system. (As if the “Eat This First” bin is the only reason I immediately inhaled that chocolate bar….)

The Eat This First bin is such a simple solution in the fight against food waste and kitchen clutter, I started to think about how to apply the idea to other areas. 

I started with a Use This First reminder in the bathroom to wrangle three different half-empty bottles of lotion, a travel-sized conditioner, and a tube of toothpaste I don’t really love but I’m going to use up anyway. (Toothpaste is on my nopping list for another long while because I was very overeager with a coupon at BJ’s.)

I designated a Wear This First section of my closet to nudge me to create new outfit combinations and ensure I’m actually wearing all of my presentable summer dresses and not just my favorite casual (cough cough tattered) denim shorts. 

I made a Read This First stack of books and magazines to get a jump on completing them and clearing them out of my house.  I’ll return them to the library, or lend them to an interested reader, or rehome them in the Little Free Library. 

“This First” can go hand-in-hand with weeding. We’ll use up the consumable objects that are competing for prime real estate with our favorites, and we’ll give a little audition to the clothing and media that we haven’t engaged with in awhile to determine if it goes back into the active rotation or goes into that other very important bin we should have in our homes: the Donate bin.


HOT MESS // Surprise Subscription Boxes

Considering a monthly product subscription box? Proceed with extreme caution.

A great way to accumulate clutter is by getting things we don’t need delivered straight to our door before we’ve even had the chance to use the items that arrived the month prior. 

Unlike meal kit boxes, or regular old-fashioned shopping, many of these subscription boxes don’t let you preview or choose the contents of your monthly package. The surprise element can give us that slot-machine high when we get something novel and useful, but that dopamine hit can also blind us to the items that don’t work for us. 

What happens to those duds? They’ll likely become procrasticlutter we avoid contending with, or jetsam we try to foist onto other people, or trash.

Shopping is more consumptive than creative, but we don’t have to totally cede control of our possessions to someone else, especially to people who profit from us being passive.

We can identify our own needs, problems, and sources of friction.

We can do our own research on potential solutions that we can make, borrow, thrift, or, if need be, buy.

We can choose our own desired purchases, add those items to our shopping lists, and purchase them from a local business owner as often as possible. We can opt for items with less packaging and transportation costs. 


And above all, we can determine if an item will add value to our life before we allow it into our home.

HOT TIP // Hacking Envy

I recently saw a woman in a flowy sundress and strappy wedges heading to her gate at the airport. My reactions were, in order:

1. envying her adventurous, travel-filled life

2. coveting her outfit, which I believed would result in me having an adventurous life of my own

That reaction was absurd, because: 

  1. I was in the airport after 12 sunny, breezy days of swimming in the ocean, reading in a hammock, hiking through the rain forest, eating my weight in mofongo, and enjoying my husband’s mojito-making skills. I have an adventurous and travel-filled life! To envy someone else for a privilege I already enjoy is whiny nonsense. 

  2. Even if I didn’t adventure often, purchasing that outfit, or a new suitcase, or a fancy toiletry kit, would have no bearing whatsoever on the number of stamps in my passport or how deeply I get to know a new place. Owning the “gear” doesn’t mean doing the activity.


Oh, and of course:

3. I actually do own a very similar flowy sundress. And nearly identical strappy wedges. I actively chose not to wear either to the airport for the sake of comfort and convenience. I shouldn’t forget what clothes I own just because they’re not currently on my body. (But we all do, which is why we so often purchase functionally identical pieces when we go to the store without sticking to our shopping and nopping lists.)

Envy isn’t my best look, but it is useful, because it nudges me to tune in to my goals, dreams, and desires.

I have to dig deeper than the material objects, though, because we rarely envy an item itself so much as we envy what that item represents to us: freedom, control, status, passion, power, ease, etc.

I do this by asking myself: What’s the verb? 

I’ve envied boho-chic clothing because I wanted to travel. So, I pack the clothes I already own into the luggage I already own after taking time off and budgeting for an adventure. 

I’ve envied people’s sleek laptops because I wanted to write and manage an entrepreneurial business. So, I run bmore minimal from my perfectly adequate chromebook after dedicating the wee hours of the morning to my business and blog. 

Instead of purchasing new items, we can prioritize our time, money, and energy to invest in those verbs the green-eyed monster is after.


HOT TIP // Decanting 

With so many products for consumers to choose from, packaging is designed to get our attention with pleasing colors, bold graphics, and engaging text.

All of this visual information is very helpful as we browse the aisles looking for our tried-and-true favorite brands, but once that item is in our home, all of that packaging can become unnecessary visual noise.

A jumble of boxes and bags in various sizes, shapes, and colors looks cluttered, and often results in overbuying because we can’t find what we already have.

To avoid this, we can take a minute to “decant” our pantry and personal hygiene products, as in transferring them from the original packaging into reusable, uniform containers. This allows us to see the variety of goods on hand while streamlining their visual impression. 

If we use something all at once when we unpackage it, then decanting is not the best use of our time. But for things that we use a bit at a time, like flour and salt in the kitchen, or band-aids and cotton swabs in the bathroom, decanting makes each time we retrieve the item more pleasant.

There are hundreds of options for decanting containers available for purchase, in every shape, size, and material you’d could imagine, and investing in one durable and beautiful set all at once can completely transform a space. I’ll even help you shop!


That said, I built up my own decanting set little by little over time, with a combination of new purchases, thrifted finds, gifts, and upcycling. My containers are not totally uniform, but they’re not a haphazard mix either; each container is either clear glass or wicker, and they look cohesive even if they’re not instagram-perfect. 


Maybe you’d prefer a colorful assortment of identical plastic bins. Great! Do you. A good rule of thumb is to keep one thing consistent across the set, be it the color, the material, the shape, or the size.


HOT TIP // Workhorses

Some objects are so useful, they can replace 3 other items. I call these workhorses.

A workhorse is highly functional, durable, and versatile. The indirect way find to identify your workhorses is by doing the corkscrew test, especially for kitchen items and clothing.

Remember, the corkscrew test is these three questions:

  • Is there an alternative to the tool that would work just as well?

  • Do you do that job so frequently that your life would be markedly easier with that specific tool?

  • Is the tool challenging to store, to keep in working order, to keep clean?

When I interrogated a handful of bud vases, a trio of warped, stained plastic tupperware, and a pack of disposable party cups, the answer to what could I use instead was the same: the set 12 oz quilted jelly jars I already owned. The jars are versatile, durable, and dishwasher safe. Total workhorses.

A small wooden cutting board moonlights as a cheese board, a trivet, and a weight for holding cookbooks open.

A comfortable, high-quality, machine-washable sweater can be dressed up for a party, dressed down for running errands, and dressed way, way down for a rainy day of heavy couch-sitting.

We might need to think flexibly about them to unlock all of the uses each of our items possess, but when we use our workhorses to their full potential, we can own less stuff overall.


HOT MESS // Redundancy

We can end up with multiples of objects in many ways. We get a duplicate as a gift after buying one for ourselves. We buy a duplicate after the mess in our house makes it hard to find the first. We move in with someone who has one, too.

I deal with these kinds of redundancy in four different ways:

Consumables: If I have a duplicate of something consumable, like a book of stamps, bottle of shampoo, or jar of peanut butter, I’ll add that item to my nopping list to avoid getting yet another before I’ve used up the ones I have.

Counterparts: If I have a duplicate of something I use in more than one location in my home, I’ll keep both as counterparts to one another, like my downstairs broom and my upstairs hand broom.

Keepers: If I have multiples of something that I love, like my life uniform of denim shirts, I’ll keep and care for them all. I’ve purchased this same thing again and again because I love it, and I can maintain multiples within reason.

Purged: If the duplicate doesn’t fall into the categories of consumables, counterparts, or keepers, if they’re truly redundant, they’re likely to be given away. This is why S.P.A.C.E. can be so effective. The Sort step shows us the redundancy in our homes, and Purging those duplicates or triplicates that aren’t serving us is made simpler by the knowledge we already have that object should we need it.

Arigato and goodbye, redundancy.


HOT TIP // Counterparts

If you’ve worked with me already or SPACE’d out on your own, then this blog post is for you.

If you still have a ton of stuff you don’t care for, use, or even like, come back later. I’m about to contradict myself and I don’t want to interrupt your journey to an organized home before it’s really underway.

I’m obviously all about purging objects you don’t need, giving remaining objects a specific home within your house, and returning items to that home after each use. You don’t want to store your pans in three different kitchen cabinets, or your bath towels on three different shelves. Co-locating makes sense.

That said, retrieval is key, and everything feels easier if you store things where you use them. If you need to use an object two places, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll need two of those objects. One object gets one home, and the other gets the other, and they absolutely need to respect curfew. But you get to have more than one object, and that category gets to have more than one home.

For example, I have two brooms. One lives with my cleaning supplies, and I retrieve it weekly when I clean my floors. One is a hand broom, which lives in my bathroom, and I retrieve it every few days to sweep up stray hair from my yeti-like shedding. If I had to go down the two flights of stairs for the primary broom every time I needed to sweep the bathroom floor, I’d procrastinate. So I don’t feel guilty about this redundancy-- it makes my home cleaner and my life easier.

Also, I store a secondary phone charger in my car. I never have to fret about what percentage my battery is at before leaving the house for the day, or remember to pack my primary charger before a road trip. That frees up my brain to think about other things, and makes my life easier.


Good organization helps eliminate those little sources of friction throughout the day, such as having to consciously think about something I don’t want to forget, or having to go through a couple of steps to retrieve the object I need right then and there. When used judiciously, redundancies can help my life go more smoothly.

Here are two questions to ask when trying to determine if something deserves to have a counterpart:

  1. Do I use it quite frequently? ( Or, as was the case for purchasing my little hand broom, do I hope to use it more frequently so people don’t assume I have an unseen chocolate lab living with me?)

A pen is used frequently enough that it’s a good candidate for redundancy and multiple homes.

A watering can is probably used about once a week, so it makes less sense to double up.

A panini maker you use once a year for is definitely not a candidate for multiple homes, and might not even be a candidate for one home because of the corkscrew test.


2. Is it simpler to store a back-up in the secondary location than it is to retrieve the original from the primary location?

This is rather rare in a compact rowhome, so when it is true, we can go ahead and indulge in redundancy. Think about stairs-- if you have to use one or more flights of stairs to access something you want to use everyday, then it might be fair to double up to have one closer at hand.

And if some instagram-minimalist gives you crap, tell them to meet me in the parking lot.


HOT TIP // Out of House and Home

When I work with clients on kitchen sessions, the first half hour is typically dedicated to tossing expired food. We often cook and eat what we remember buying most recently, relegating earlier pantry purchases to the back of a dusty shelf. This can waste food, money, and space.

An impending vacation or holiday gathering, (or a financial fast,) can be the impetus to use the food we’ve already purchased before it’s wasted.

In these days leading up to my 2-week vacation, I’m practicing what Elizabeth Willard Thames calls “Eat All The Things.” This entails using up the “backlog” of food in the house and buying groceries very judiciously if at all.

When doing the Eat All The Things challenge, I have to be thoughtful and creative in meal-planning. I take stock of the perishable produce, meat, eggs, and dairy in the fridge, for obvious reasons, but also the salmon filet and mixed veggies in the freezer, and the rice, beans, and canned goods in the pantry.

I’ll use up these reserves instead of stocking (shoving) new grocery purchases in front of them.

Salad, smoothie, or soup recipes in my regular rotation might get a novel addition. Franken-chili is a personal favorite, because pretty much any meat or vegetable tastes great when simmered in tomatoes for 10 hours. Kitchen-sink omelettes are another go-to.

Some “meals” might be more like a sliver of this, a scoop of that, a handful of these, but even the most eclectic combinations are delicious if I eat them off of small plates with a glass of wine (tapas!) or spread them out across the patio table (picnic!).

This challenge forces me to examine the food I’m buying vs. the food I’m actually using. Sometimes this disconnect is an embarrassing reflection of my spending and/or eating habits, e.g. I have a backlog of frozen veggies, but a bag of potato chips won’t last 24 hours in my home. Contending with this helps make me a more informed shopper- and hopefully a more healthful eater.

If I truly don’t care to eat a particular food item, I can bring it to the Little Free Pantry near the Canton branch of the library, or find a neighbor who’d be happy to make use of it.

When (if) I return from the beach, I’ll follow my bon de revenir routine, and plan for dinner at one of our local favorites, so I feel peaceful about returning home instead of super bummed.

Having a weird mystery stink in my kitchen would really harsh my post-vacation vibe, but a cleared out, wiped down, refreshed fridge, freezer, and pantry will make that reentry more pleasant.