HOT TIP // Treat Yo Self

I’ve felt spread thin lately, helping clients tackle big spring cleaning projects, sprinting to the finish line of the school year, finalizing wedding logistics, fending off a pernicious sinus infection, etc.

I’m very tempted to cite time constraints and low energy as excuses not to follow curfew or process mail, let alone tackle actual chores. “I deserve to leave a mess,” I’ll say.

The benefit of slacking off and lounging around is nice, but fleeting. The breakdown of my routines makes my house feel more disheveled and out of control, and soon enough my home is an added stressor as opposed to being a place of refuge and retreat. The mess quickly shifts from a treat to myself to a disservice to myself.

Now, I’m not about to argue that scrubbing my bathtub is akin to taking a lavender bath.

But keeping my home clean and organized is a small and effective way to lift a low mood or mitigate a stressful day.

It all depends on framing:

I had a bad day, I’m going to make sure my home is in good order.

I’m low on energy, I’m going to tackle this small task that will give me a boost when it’s done.

I’m feeling stuck, I’m going to arrange my closet with new outfit combinations to feel some creativity.


I need to remember to treat my home like people I love live there, including myself.


HOT TIP // Phone Home

At the ripe old age of 28, I can remember using a telephone screwed to the wall.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’m FaceTiming from every room of my house while cooking, throwing in a load of laundry, and watering my tiny army of houseplants. I’m plopping down on one seat after another refreshing email, or googling something instead of dedicating 3 seconds worth of brainwaves to it. I was grateful for this convenience, but I also felt like I paid for it in terms of my presence and attention span when I was home.

I’d already silenced notifications, deactivated personal social media accounts, deleted phone games, and set Do Not Disturb quiet times, so I was annoyed that my phone checking still felt compulsive, mindless, and avoidant.

Enter the foyer phone method. This entails parking your phone in one place the moment you arrive home, and only using the phone in that place for the remainder of your time at home.

I first encountered this suggestion on Cal Newport’s blog series on digital minimalism.

(He’s gone on to write a book on Digital Minimalism which I highly recommend. Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You are also two of my favorites.)

Now, I don’t have a foyer because I live in a rowhome in Baltimore City, but I do have a command center in my kitchen and a highly choreographed arrival routine that involves me returning my work bag, my keys, my shoes, etc to their designated home.  I was able to use habit stacking to add “park phone on the command center” to my routine.

It also helped that I had a lovely wooden tray that became “home” for the phone.

Relegating my phone, and my use of it, to one spot of my house has had three benefits.

First, I’m more mindful about this highly addictive device. I don’t want to be scrolling endlessly, reading Game of Thrones tweets on my phone while watching Game of Thrones on my TV while searching Game of Throne subreddits on my computer. If I’m only using my phone while standing up near my command center, I’m not so easily lulled into that dead-eyed zombie scroll mode.

Second, I can get absorbed in all kinds of deep work without being tempted to slack off when I hit a snag. I need to concentrate to write a blog post, or to prepare an organizing workshop, or to read my stack of library books, or to try a new recipe, and I don’t feel successful at these tasks when my attention is fragmented. I also need a little boredom, solitude, and daydreaming to recharge my brain. If my phone isn’t next to me, I won’t check it absentmindedly when I feel stuck or bored.

Third, I sleep the sleep of the righteous. Banishing my phone from my bedroom ensures I’m not bathing my retinas in blue light as I’m trying to wind down from the day, or looking at my phone if I wake up in the middle of the night. Arianna Huffington would be proud.

Plus, in general, when I return my belongings to the same place each night, my life hums along more efficiently.


HOT MESS // Thou Shall Not Dedicate An Entire Drawer to Junk

So my clientele are mostly urban dwellers, many in rowhomes with modest kitchens, struggling to fit all the equipment and ingredients they’d like to keep to make cooking at home as hassle-free as possible.

And while I’m typically very respectful of client’s preferences and tailor my approach to suit their needs, I’m really prescriptive about junk drawers.

We urban dwellers can not have junk drawers. We can have public parks, and lively pubs, and renowned museums, but not junk drawers.

If we only have 5 drawers in our kitchen, one entire drawer can not be a junk drawer. That’s 20% percent of our prime drawer real estate dedicated to stuff we rarely if ever use. The kitchen utensils we use all the time deserve that space instead.

Most of things that are stored in the typical junk drawer deserve to be a) discarded, b) assigned a home with other like objects somewhere else c) contained in a very small space. As in not an entire drawer, because induced demand, y’all.

There are items that are useful and don’t necessarily belong to a wider category, but don’t need to commandeer an entire drawer.

For me, this includes a small Bic that I use to light candles and a wide rubber band I keep for opening tricky jars. They live in a tiny section of my utensil divider, where they can’t creep and multiply like gremlins.

This does NOT include underinked promotional pens, bread bag ties, torn receipts, soy sauce packets, and old batteries. Those don’t get to live in my home, let alone my kitchen real estate.

If you want those “junk drawer” things close at hand, put the useful miscellany in a small box or bin within a drawer. Maybe, just maybe, if we indulge a little teeny bit of disorder in the form of a small bin, we might feel more capable of maintaining our otherwise organized kitchens.

But for the love of all the things, don’t pay good money for a bunch of acrylic drawer dividers to organize things you don’t use. Purge it.


HOT TIP // Quit Something

Owning the stuff associated with a particular activity does not equate to doing it. If we want to start or maintain a habit, we need to protect our time, not buy the requisite gear. That’s why so many treadmills become clothes drying racks.

However, purging our homes of stuff can go a long way in preventing us from doing something we’d like to stop.

James Clear writes about habit formation, and refers to the “stuff” of our habits as environmental cues. Their presence can trigger us into completing the habit loop, which then strengthens the association in our minds between that object and that habit.

While it’s not always a magic bullet, eliminating those environmental cues can weaken that habit loop, giving us a better chance of quitting.

If we want to quit sugar, tossing all the candy in our home is a great start. When we have a craving for something sweet, we are very likely to reach into our home-based candy stash. We are less likely to grab our keys, head to the store, and buy candy.

If we’re not ready to purge entirely, we can consider moving an item out of prime real estate, making retrieval more complicated. We can also store those tempting items out of sight using opaque containers, or closed doors or drawers.

I don’t want to be in the habit of drinking every day, but I like having wine in the house for special occasions or entertaining. The wine rack lives on top of my cabinets, which I can’t reach without standing on a stool.

This doesn’t need to be reserved for the typical vices either. If we want a quicker morning routine, purging our closets, our cosmetics options, etc down to the essentials will prompt that shift without any day-to-day decision making. The non-essentials can either leave the house entirely, or be stored out of prime real estate so we’re not contending with it each and every day.


Remember, time plus inconvenience is the antidote to impulses.


HOT MESS // Induced Demand

Clutter is like a gas. It will expand to fill whatever container it’s in. The solution is not to buy a bigger container; the solution is to purge the clutter.

Ever wonder why the widest roads have the worst congestion? In city planning parlance that’s called induced demand-- when the roadway gets more lanes, more drivers choose to drive along it, and more cars leads to more traffic jams.

The solution is never to add more lanes, which will only attract more drivers, but rather to design walkable and bikeable cities, public transit, integrated street grids, and market-rate parking systems that reduce the number of cars.

This concept of induced demand is why I’m leery of the offerings at places like Container Store. If we purchase an acrylic nail polish riser that holds 40 bottles, we’ll likely be induced to store 40 bottles of nail polish, regardless of how many of those colors we actually use. (In my case, 0-1.)

If we have a huge Rubbermaid tote for extension cords, we’ll be induced to have 1,001 feet of extension cord.

If we have multiple bookshelves, we’ll be induced to store multiple shelves worth of books.

“It will fit” is too low of a bar for what we allow in our home, and “I’ll make it fit!” is the death knell of our decluttered space.

Our biggest containers will be filled, and then our homes will be filled, and then we’ll have to drive on those congested roads to our 7-bedroom homes in the suburbs, chasing a feeling of spaciousness we’ve inadvertently eliminated from our urban homes.


HOT MESS // Anchors

Mementos are meaningful, uplifting objects that remind us of people and events from our past that we want to carry forward. By all means, let’s all keep our cherished mementos.

But there are mementos, and then there are anchors.

Anchors are not uplifting, or even bittersweet. They fill us with dread, grief, shame, regret, or boredom.

They do not remind us of good times; they tether us to our past at the expense of being present.

We don’t cherish them, display them, or use them. We stash them away out of a sense of obligation, or out of guilt, or out of avoidance of the work necessary to handle them.

Transitions in our life can render some of our possessions irrelevant, but when the transition is positive, we can declutter many of those items without much emotional labor.

But when a transition feels like a loss, we can tend to avoid dealing with the associated objects. We keep each pair of jeans that no longer fit. We keep every letter from our failed relationship. We keep all the housewares from our deceased loved one’s home. These items get squirreled away, dredging up negative emotions each time we happen upon them.

We can, and should, declutter these anchors. It might take more out of us than a pantry clean-out would; there’s a reason sentimental items are the last category in the Konmari method. But it’s also a huge return on investment, as we distill our sentimental things down to our mementos, and unburden ourselves from these souvenirs of pain.

Minimalism to me isn’t having as little as possible, but rather keeping only what is relevant to my life. And if an object is encouraging me to stagnate, if I don’t use it, need it, want it, or even like it, I have to be very careful not to carry it forward into my future.


HOT TIP // The Corkscrew Test 2.0

If we’ve followed the corkscrew test in our kitchens, we’ve culled those objects that only serve one, hyper-specific purpose.

The corkscrew test is just three simple questions, adapted from Sam Bennett's work at The Organized Artist:

  • 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 clean?

For me, a corkscrew is worth keeping because there’s no truly great alternative, I open wine frequently enough to warrant having it, and it’s ridiculously  easy to keep in working order. An avocado tool doesn’t pass, because a knife works fine and is much more versatile.

We can apply this test to other domains in our home. Let’s examine our closets for hyper-specific uses and see if each item passes the corkscrew test 2.0:

  • Is there an alternative to the article of clothing that would work just as well?

  • Do we have occasion to wear that item  so frequently that life would be markedly easier with it?

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

I’ve used this test to donate:

  • A flimsy dress that was appropriate only for a very casual winter occasion that I’d more likely choose to attend in a warm sweater and pants because of, you know, winter

  • One dry-clean only black cardigan that wasn’t significantly different from my machine washable black cardigan

  • A pair of work pants that only looked good with heels (which I don’t ever wear to work)

  • A clutch that wasn’t formal enough for special occasions, but not convenient enough (e.g. had no strap, small capacity) for everyday use

This test a great way to do an initial closet declutter, but it also makes sense when we’re weeding our belongings to align our homes with our current lives. If an outfit has a very specific use, and our lives have evolved past that use, the outfit can go.  

When our clothing is versatile, then we don’t feel like we have a closet filled with clothes and nothing to wear, and we don’t feel like we have to go out and buy new stuff.


HOT TIP // In Defense of the Wish List

I admit, I feel conflicted about my wedding gift registry. I feel a bit entitled  saying “Here’s what I like, now go buy it for me!” But at the same time, my loved ones know of my minimalist proclivities, and I know that makes me very hard to shop for. I want to make shopping for a wedding gift as simple as possible.

I’m convinced by Gary Chapman’s argument that gift giving is a “love language,” and I don’t think we have to condemn the whole practice of gift giving because of its more crass and commercial extremes. Nor do we have to condemn the practice of the gift registry.

People want to give us wedding gifts as a sign of care and celebration, so instead of refusing this generous impulse, we can participate in a way that results in us getting things we’ll love and takes the onus off of our loved ones to think of something that would fit in our house AND suit our tastes AND match our decor AND pass our high standards for living in our home.

Some people feel more comfortable with giving a physical gift than with giving a check or contributing to a travel fund, and I’m not here to insist they make themselves uncomfortable or think of their own item to give us.

We made our registry a few weeks before it actually went live for our guests to view, and in that time it became something akin to my shopping list. We’d tweak the items, the quantities, and often delete an item altogether, realizing we had happily gone without it and wouldn’t benefit much from acquiring it.

We had to be wary of gear, because owning something does not automatically mean we’ll actually use that thing. I don’t need to ask folks for a dozen ramekins for the zero times I make crème brûlée. Also, everything had to pass the corkscrew test. (Hyper-specific kitchen gear are among the most common wedding gifts that clients part with during the purge stage of S.P.A.C.E.)

We could have asked for “upgrades” to items we already own, but we took great care to select and curate the things in our home and as such, we don’t particularly want to replace our possessions simply because we happen to be picking up a marriage certificate.

And so, our wedding registry exists, and it has a mix of experiential, physical, and group funded gifts. The upgrades we did register for include items that are easily recycled or donated, like towels. (See you in July, BARCS.) The gear we’ve asked for represents solutions to problems we’ve identified in advance, e.g. the need for higher-capacity blender for our smoothie habit.

It was important to interrogate the aspirations behind each item: do we want this thing only because it’s shiny and pretty and high-end? Or would this thing support the life that we’re trying to live?

Which is the same question I regularly ask of all my possessions.


HOT MESS // Buying is Not Belonging

I’m mindful about how my relationship with stuff has the potential to clutter my home, drain my finances, and exhaust our planet. Those concerns would be enough for me to strive to live with less, but now I can add my mental health to the list of minimalism motivations.

The High Cost of Materialism by Tim Kasser is a slim but dense volume detailing the ways in which our values support or derail our psychological well-being.

TL;DR is this:


When people value intrinsic aspirations, i.e. learning, connecting with community, and being their most authentic and autonomous selves, they experience more life satisfaction and psychological well-being.


When people value extrinsic aspirations, i.e. money, possessions, status, the right image, etc., they report less satisfaction with their life and are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

Why?

Because if we aspire to have the right stuff, there will always be someone with more stuff, newer stuff, more expensive stuff, and that makes us feel bad. Plus, once we have enough to be fed, sheltered, clothed, and safe, any additional stuff we do have doesn’t fulfill our psychological needs for competence, belonging, and self-expression. Those unfulfilled needs make us feel worse.


If we aim instead to grow, connect, and create, we’re no longer in a competition with others in which there are winners and losers. We can admire someone who seems further along the path than we are, without that admiration devolving into envy. We pursue our ambitions, and a side effect of that pursuit is psychological needs fulfillment and well-being.


I can, and do, love and appreciate my possessions. But I love and appreciate how they enable me to grow and learn, to spend quality time with people I love, to behave in a way that is more free, more aligned with my values, and more authentic.

My things help me get the life that I want, rather than my life helping me get the things that I want.

If I start to covet something for how it might make me appear to others, or the status it might afford me, or the signals it might send about my income or importance, that’s when I know I’m headed towards a steep slope to profound discontent.

To put it alliteratively, stuff is not self-worth, and buying is not belonging.

HOT MESS // Fixed Mess Mindset

Maybe somewhere in the world, there is someone who was born organized. I am not that person. Neither is anyone I know.

I’m not “naturally” tidy. When I was growing up, I was kind of a slob. My mother would prompt me to clean my room and I would shove everything in the closet and hope she didn’t open the door.

I’m not a “natural” minimalist, either. I spent my first paychecks on crap from the mall just like every other American teenager. When I was real young, I collected air in empty film canisters that I asked my mom to label with the location- Grandma’s House Air, Highway Air, etc.

Literal AIR, y’all. Could I have chosen a more useless collection?? (Yes, my mother did label all of those for me, and yes, she is, in fact, a phenomenal person.)

I had to learn how to live with less, and I had to learn how to keep my things tidy, just like virtually everyone else I know.

We have to learn how to relate to our things the same way we have to learn how to relate to people-- it takes effort, practice, and intention. Maybe it comes a bit easier to some people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not accessible for all.

I mastered these skills over three big transitions, trial-by-fire situations which helped me see how a minimalist, organized space influenced my productivity, my health, and my happiness for the better. I’m less anxious, less distracted, and less impulsive in a tidy home, and I value that. I wanted to get better at this lifestyle, so I practiced more, read more, decluttered more, experimented more.

My next learning focus is on reducing waste and harmful chemicals in my home. I’m not yet a master, as evident by the remaining paraben-laden products in my bathroom, but I’m learning. Sustainability is a learned state, too.

If you’re currently disorganized, if your home is cluttered, if your life feels jumbled, don’t tell yourself it’s a permanent and pervasive trait. Organization is not like height or eye color- it’s a state that can change with knowledge and attention.

Being organized is a set of skills, strategies, and routines that you can learn. And while I love working with clients over multiple projects in their homes, I don’t intend to make anyone a client for the rest of their natural lives.  I’m here to help shorten your learning curve by teaching you what I know.


HOT TIP // What We Gain

Minimalism is often described in terms of what we don’t own, what we don’t purchase, and what we let go. That focus on what’s not there can make some folks feel uneasy about the idea of becoming more minimalist in their own homes, because it feels like a loss.

What if we focused instead on what we gain?

We’ll feel more comfortable with decluttering and placing limits on our consumption, because those disciplined behaviors are all in service of gaining something we value.

Instead of saying we’re donating half of our clothes, we can say we’re making a curated wardrobe.

Instead of saying we have to cull our book collection, we can say we’re making room in our reading nook.

Instead of saying we’re getting rid of the junk in our basement, we can say we’re clearing space for our home office, or our yoga practice, or a gathering space for friends and family.

I sometimes think about this in terms of square footage; if a client’s rowhome is valued at $300,000 and has 1000 square feet of living space, then we can think of each square foot as being worth $300. Would they “pay” that $300 to store a basket of old magazines? Probably not. They may even pay $300 to get a square foot of space back. So decluttering those old magazines provides real, tangible value in the form of space.

And space is just one thing we gain. We gain time not searching for useful items among junk, money not overbuying things we don’t need, energy not caring for possessions we don’t value, and more often than not, we gain all of the above.

And with that mindset, minimalism starts to feel less like deprivation and more like luxury.


HOT TIP // Weeding

I always caution clients against the “just a little each day” approach. Decluttering is like a juice cleanse: muster up the willpower just once, watch in horror at the things that come out, reset your whole system, and then emerge into the next chapter of your life.


That said, we should be prepared to stay vigilant against the creep of clutter. We establish routines to keep our house neat and tidy, but we also may need to do a very mini-decluttering from time to time. Amanda Sullivan calls this “weeding” and it doesn’t need to be a daily or even a monthly task; we should “weed” every once in a while as our lives change.


Now, big life transitions often need big, full on decluttering. A cross-country move, a marriage, a new baby-- those can alter our whole life, not just shift it a bit.

But our lives often change more subtly, and we’re vulnerable to keeping a newly unnecessary item around because we can remember using it recently. Instead, we can use these shifts as a cue to “weed” our possessions, and stay intentional about our homes.


Our new office has a lax dress code, so the pencil skirts and panythose can go.

We recommit to eating healthier, so the candy stash can go.

We complete a course or training, so the materials can go.

We switched to decaf, so the dark roast can go. (Yeah, as if.)


Weeding can take the shape of mini Minimalists game than lasts a week instead of a month. Or a rapid fire “spark joy” test when we’re Konmari folding all of our laundry. Or a session with me with the broad focus of ensuring your home is a reflection of your current life and your highest goals.

We’re constantly evolving, and so should our belongings.