Time: the endless alternative

This thing all things devours; birds, beasts, trees, flowers, gnaws iron, bites steel, grinds hard stone to meal...

The answer to Gollum's riddle, of course, is Time.

There is no way (that I know of) to escape the passage of time. But we can think of all the moments that we move through as one thing, we can name that thing "time", and we can decide what to do in it and with it. We can track it, measure it, use it to evaluate our effectiveness. We can be on time, out of time, in time, timeless. Time is an immensely powerful concept. It's also notoriously hard to get a solid grip on, and hard to spend wisely.

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I worked in sales one summer during college. Like every salesperson on my team, I tracked my hours carefully, because that (combined with our sales dollars) determined how much we were paid. Of the 168 hours in a week, I noticed that the fewer hours I spent trying to sell knives, the happier I was.

I didn't last long as a salesperson, but I did learn a few valuable lessons that summer. The first was that spending my time on some things -- selling knives is a good example -- left me feeling drained, and that getting back to a balanced emotional state after even an hour or two of work took a good long time. I also figured out that spending time on a different set of things (going for walks, organizing my space, reading, making art) left me feeling energized, and those activities were what I would turn to after a few hours of draining work.

Fast-forward to the present day. For years now, I've been moving away from work that leaves me feeling drained. I own a small non-profit that lets me spend some of my time organizing other people's spaces. I end work feeling revitalized, because organizing is one of those things that feeds me, and my clients get to spend less of their valuable time on work they find draining.

Returning again and again to one simple go-to question, like "How does this make me feel?" or "What can I learn from this experience?" can be a powerful tool to ensure that the way you spend your time is working for you. Over time, you'll begin to understand which things you do are working for you personally, which are working for you professionally, and which are working for your loved ones. And you'll start to see more deeply into what you value, and key in on the things that are worth spending time on.

Whatever question you choose as your go-to, make sure you use it often, and with complete honesty. Don't be afraid to change how you spend time when you need to; for example, I keep a very strange sleep schedule because that lets me spend more time with my partner. And don't be afraid to hang onto patterns that work for you, even if it feels as silly as my habit of staying up all night organizing my bead collection when I'm anxious; the point is, go with what works for you.

What activities leave you feeling recharged? What obligations do you find most draining? What is one thing you haven't found time for in a few years that you really miss doing? Can you find one hour a week to set aside, and do it?

My Not-So-Secret Hatred of Printers (and a few tricks to make them mostly obsolete)

This is more of a confession than a presentation of alternatives: I have a lasting and entirely reasonable hatred of printers.

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You know how some people don't work well with technology? That's me and printers. And it's nothing to do with me: it's all about those dratted machines. I used them at work with only minor mishaps. I even fixed them from time to time. But owning one is something I hope never to do again.

Partly, this hatred is about cost. They're not cheap, unless you're willing to risk buying a used one. But the costs don't stop there. Paper isn't terribly expensive, but ink - oh, ink, bane of my existence! I haven't seen ink for under $15/cartridge for years, and often it's just as expensive as the printer was, if not more. Color printers and their endless demand for new ink cartridges, even when you KNOW you've never used the blue cartridge... I cannot stand the constant demands that come with owning a printer.

Another part of my hatred for printers is that there are SO many simple ways to take care of business online these days; printing is *almost* obsolete. I recently sold a house located in a different state and only had to print things out to sign on one single occasion -- the real estate agent I worked with used a free online service called dotloop that let me e-sign almost everything. Why own a printer that's supposed to make things simpler for you, when it really makes everything more complicated?

Getting documents from their physical form to online takes nothing more than a smartphone; the camera doubles as a decent-quality scanner.

There are still those few documents that people insist need to be printed out. Easy solution: email documents to local copy shops (like Collective Copies in Amherst, MA), or email documents to staples@printme.com when I'm home in Medina.

So far, in my printer-free life, I've printed out tax documents, proof of car insurance, and photos to give as gifts at Staples. I just email them the files, go to the store with my confirmation number, and a few minutes and a few dollars later, I have my documents in hand. I spent under $20 on all the Important Documents and photos I had printed in 2015, but best of all? I'll never need to buy ink, or paper, worry about paper jams, or replace printers when they inevitably go belly-up. Ever. Again.

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Printers, like lawnmowers, are a great example of a tool that we really don't all need to own. I'd love to live in a neighborhood where we kept things like that where everyone could use them when we needed them. Some online groups are starting to get people together to timeshare tools, so we don't all have to own the same stuff and use it for the hour or two a month we actually need it. Some businesses do the same (at a hefty profit). For now, I don't need to print things often enough to look for another alternative -- but if you need to print out a manuscript every so often, it might be worth scouring the internet for a more innovative, crowd-sourced approach.

Do you have another solution to printing the few documents that still need to be in physical form? Is there an online printing service you know of that prints your documents and mails them to you? (That would be even better than Staples!) Or -- have you managed to go completely digital?

Goodwill or Salvation Army?

I've been organizing stuff professionally for over 20 years. One of the questions that's always more complicated than I'd like is where to donate the things that my clients don't want any more, but are still in good enough shape to be used.

There are a couple of excellent resale shops in different cities that I know of. Without exception, these are smallish non-profits that have a narrow and effective focus (like the Howard Brown Health Center / Brown Elephant shops in Chicago, that offer free STI testing, LGBT meeting spaces, and sex ed; like Housing Works in NYC that provides services and shelter for the homeless). The approach of offering preventive services and education has been shown over and over to forestall problems that cost the individual dearly -- not to mention reducing costs down the line taxpayers and the government. But (unless you're in Chicago or NYC,) those mission-driven non-profits aren't going to pick up your donations.

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Goodwill and Salvation Army are the two major players in most cities and towns around the country. Both offer home pickup of your donations if you have enough stuff, or if what you have to donate includes furniture. I used to love Salvation Army -- right up until I learned that it's a religious organization run by evangelicals, and that the organization illegally discriminates against non-heterosexual people who need help, and lobbies against civil rights like marriage and benefits for domestic partners.

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But I heard recently (from volunteers at a local thrift shop that gives its leftovers to the Salvation Army) that Goodwill is a for-profit corporation. I looked into it. They're wrong: Goodwill is, in fact, a non-profit, and it has a 4-star rating from the independent evaluation website, Charity Navigator. Salvation Army, on the other hand, isn't rated at all; as a religious organization, it is exempt from reporting any financial data to the organizations that would evaluate it, if it were actually a 501(c)3.

That pretty much clinched the professional decision I made several years ago to donate most of my clients' unwanted stuff to Goodwill. The thing I like best about Goodwill -- beyond their community education programs, and their stated commitment to employing people that can't get jobs elsewhere due to disabilities -- is that they'll take any old electronics you have, and if they don't work? They've been recycling electronics for free since 2008.

What non-profit resale shops would you recommend? Does your city or town have a really good one you'd like other people to know about? Have you come up with a fancy alternative to donating stuff, like shredding it and making awesome recycled beanbags?

Storage: the home organizing con(tainer)

When your containers need containers...

When your containers need containers...

If you're like most people, when you think about organizing your home, you think about getting more storage containers. 

In the timeless words of Admiral Ackbar... IT'S A TRAP. 

Of the dozens of people I've worked with, not a SINGLE ONE has needed to buy more storage containers. Not one. Why is that?

There are a couple of reasons. One, if you've been thinking about getting your house in order for a while, you've probably already made some trips to the Con(tainer) Store. You've probably got extra hanging files and extra bins tucked away... somewhere out of sight... Or you have containers full of tax documents from 15 years ago that you could empty out without even reading any of them. You just... haven't gotten around to that part yet.

Second, you may not have heard about the great tricks I use in organizing that make many containers obsolete. For example, when you position bookcases about 4 inches away from a wall, there's great storage behind them for broken-down moving boxes. They're out of sight until you start packing for your next move. Furniture about 10-12 inches from a side wall make a great mini storage space for things like brooms, vacuum cleaners, umbrellas, and walking sticks -- no container needed. There are tricks for desks, traveling, bathrooms, you name it.

But the bottom line is that the problem I encounter in most homes isn't about finding containers for the stuff you use. The problem is that you have a bunch of stuff in your home that you don't use.

Storage containers provide a handy way to keep stuff out of sight, but they don't address the real problem. The problem is that there is stuff in your home that isn't helping your home work for you. That stuff is making you work for your home -- taking your mental energy to ignore, taking your money to buy containers and keep it out of sight, taking your time to sift through it and get rid of it. Storage containers may be a band-aid, but they're like a band-aid on an infection: they  cover it up, but they don't help it heal.

Next time you're thinking about organizing your stuff, don't fall for the great container con. Strike the heart of the problem. Empty out one of those boxes of old papers you haven't looked at in years, or call me in to empty a bunch of them. Now you have an empty container (or 15) to use, and less stuff to worry about overall. I call that a win.

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Have other container-free storage solutions? Want to share your favorite organizing tips? Share them below!

To Share or Not to Share: Housing, Part I

There are so many different approaches to housing these days, the possibilities can be dizzying. From tiny houses to off-grid living to cooperatives, the alternatives to owning a home with your nuclear family are so diverse it can be really hard to compare them. Like apples and elephants. I'm not going to try to compare them all in one blog entry, so this whole "housing" topic will be broken up into multiple parts. Let's build in some room for expansion -- for right now, we'll start out only looking at shared housing.

I've been experimenting with shared housing since I graduated college. I've lived with partners, with friends, with strangers, and with partners and friends and strangers all at the same time. I've heard warnings about how hard living with friends can be, and how hard living with strangers can be. I've worked out the financials of living alone compared to sharing. And I strongly recommend living with other people -- for at least a few years, if not your entire life -- just for the contrast it will provide to most folks' experience of growing up with family. More than any other experience, sharing housing with friends is a (mostly) fun introduction to moving through the world like an adult.

PROS of shared housing

  • Financial: significantly lower costs per person. For example, in Chicago the lowest cost studio I found was about $650 (2013 prices). Add in utilities for about another $100, for $750 / month. In a shared home ($1500 for a 3-bedroom house with 4 occupants in 2010), costs were closer to $450 / month / person including utilities.
  • Social: you have a built-in group of people to spend time with (if you like them), or at least not-be-alone with. Especially if you're moving to a new city, knowing a few people to start out with can be a huge benefit. If you're like me and enjoy board games, you've also got a built-in gaming crew. (Another round of Pandemic, anyone?)
  • Adulting: making the transition from living with your family, or living in a dorm, to finding and renting your own place to call home? That's a big change. Figuring it out with friends is a great introduction not just to the nitty-gritties of adulting, but also in working out sophisticated compromises that leave everyone (relatively) satisfied. Now that I think of it, living in shared housing should probably be a requirement for holding public office...

CONS of shared housing

  • Time: most household decisions take longer to make. Depending on the structure of your shared home, and how closely you all want to track household expenses, even simple decisions like what toilet paper to buy can become excruciating. On the other hand, setting up some simple ground rules in advance can stave off a lot of pain in the future -- for example, if Elyria wants to buy the slightly more expensive 100% recycled content TP, that's fine, but she can only count the cost of "regular" TP as a shared household expense, and the extra will be only her expense. It all depends on how much you care about your time compared to your money; I've also lived in perfectly functional households where no expenses were tracked.
  • Different standards of clean: this is the beast. The thing is, when you and your housemates are setting the rules, you don't have anyone to blame but each other (or yourself) when things don't work. You also don't have anyone with executive power to fix the problems. So how do you deal with the one person who just won't clean up after themself? You'll resent them more and more if you have to clean up after them. They'll resent you if you tell them they're not pulling their weight. One solution I've used was to have a whole-house-cleaning day where we rotated chores around. That way, we all spent at least 2 hours a month on the spaces we all used. But ultimately, when you live in a shared space where people do not share standards of clean, you're going to have clashes from time to time.
  • Personal: you will be in the middle of other people's lives, and they will be in yours. If those people run into crises, they may turn to you -- and you might not have somewhere else to be when you want to be done listening to them. Even if they're not talking to you directly, the walls in houses are not particularly thick. Everyone is going to know exactly what your abusive boyfriend yelled at you last night, and everyone is going to hear when you have raucous sex with that cool new person you met.

Tips to make shared housing work better

1) Vet potential roomies. Visit the place they're living now, or ask to talk to one or two of their friends. Be wary of people who are aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, or who seem to move from crisis to crisis. Seek out people who are assertive, easy-going, willing to pitch in, and share at least a few of your interests.

2) Make your intentions clear from the start. Are you looking to set up a house of friends to save money? An intentional community? A place that will host a lot of gatherings of people who don't live there? Make sure every potential housemate is on board before you get attached to your ideas -- or your housemates.

3) Stay flexible. Living in shared housing is just like living in the rest of the world, only more so. Things will change. What will you do when one of your housemates gets a job in a different city in the middle of your lease? When one of your parents gets sick and you need to take care of them? When someone loses a job and can't pay their share of rent? While it's a good idea to prepare for this kind of thing, life has a way of continually surprising people. Be prepared for surprises, stand up for what you need, and be respectful of what your housemates need.

The Bottom Line

Living in shared housing made me a better person. It took a few years, and a lot of conversation, but I have more respect for other people's opinions and experiences now than I used to. That single thing has made me a better listener and communicator, and I've used that skill in several jobs, as well as my relationships. For that reason alone, I strongly recommend spending a year or five (or 50!) living with people you're not related to.

It isn't always smooth sailing, but it's always worth it.

What about you?

Have you lived in shared housing? What about it worked for you? What didn't? Would you recommend it to everyone, or only some people?

2016: year of buying nothing

So far, it's going great!

My relationships are stronger: I'm spending more time with people I care about. My wallet is fatter: I'm not buying stuff I don't really need. I have more time for myself. And my heart is full of the things that really matter to me.

But what is this goal about, exactly?

Specifically, my goal is to buy no physical stuff other than food in 2016. I have a few built-in exceptions. My partner and I share a car, and we're not going to let repairs go undone, or fall behind on oil changes. I'll keep up on basic hygiene. When I run out of shampoo & toothpaste, I will buy replacements if I don't learn to make my own. If I need anything for my business, I'll do my absolute best to find it secondhand. Freecycle, the local Facebook Buy/Sell/Free group, and Craigslist will make that easy -- but I'm hoping I won't actually need any supplies this year.

Plus... I REALLY haven't found an acceptable alternative to toilet paper. And believe me, I've tried some weird alternatives on backpacking trips, from rocks to snow to twigs to leaves. Bottom line: I prefer toilet paper. It doesn't end up in landfills, and I always buy brands that are certified through the FSC. Only well-managed forests to keep this bottom clean, if you please! 

Other than that? I've found a couple of exceptions. If there are things my partner needs and I'm the one out in town, I will buy the occasional Physical Thing for them. It's an interesting exception for me personally, and not one I expected to encounter. I've written about it over on my blog

There's a surprising kind of freedom in buying nothing for a year. I find it makes going out into the world a much more engaging experience. There's no background script of "I wonder if I should pick that up for so-and-so." I'm free to just enjoy the things I find beautiful, with exactly zero sense of obligation to bring them home or possess them myself. The richness that surrounds us really is amazing. And I appreciate it so much more fully when I'm not worried about making it MINE. 

The idea of taking a break from buying stuff started a few years back, for me. I tried a single month first, and I liked the vacation from buying Stuff so much that I started calling it my "luxury month." 

More updates and background on this whole "year without buying Stuff" project are over on my alternatives blog

Commuting: Housing Part II

When I was growing up, my mom always walked to work. Starting in about 4th grade, I walked to school. When I graduated college and moved to Chicago to live with my then-fiancé, I made a point of only looking for apartments that were close enough for one or both of us to walk to work.

The longest commutes I've had were about 10 miles one-way. In the city of Chicago, ten miles can easily translate to an hour-long car commute, in traffic. While I did occasionally walk those 10 miles -- hey, it only takes about two and a half hours -- more often I took the train, or bicycled.

I never realized how important those choices were to my happiness until I had a partner who made different ones. My impression of the horror, the cost, and the endless time suck that was commuting lasted. The relationship didn't.

The choice to live close to your workplace isn't always easy. If you've bought a house and your job moves, or you lose one job and get a new one, or if a partner takes a new job across town, it can take a good long time to find a new place to live. There may not be an ideal compromise, if you're in a household with more than one job. 

But shortening your commute is one alternative that it's worth your time to look into.

Dozens of studies over the years have found that shortening your commute may be the easiest way to make yourself happier, and that the people with the longest commutes have the lowest overall satisfaction with their lives. Long commutes by public transit or by car, especially those involving heavy traffic like Chicago, correlate with higher stress and more illness-related absences from work.

I decided last month not even to apply for a job that would have had me commuting an hour one way. As ideal a match as my skill set was, the length of the commute and the fact that they would have needed me on site every day had me dreading the drive while I was still reading the job description. With the small business I run right now, I work from home or from my clients' homes, and whether I have zero commute or an hour commute, I'm doing what I love to do.

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How long is your commute? Do you have the opportunity to use your commute as leisure time -- to listen to audiobooks, read, listen to music? What keeps you from living closer to where you work? Would your employer be open to letting you work from home one or two days a week? How much time would you save if you lived within walking distance of work, and what would you be giving up? Could moving closer to one person's work allow you to have fewer cars than adults in your household? What benefits would come along with having a shorter commute, or none at all?

Organizing Fads (and why I dislike them)

A friend recently asked me what I thought about an organizing fad that's been pretty popular recently. According to this fad - and I'll explain why I call it a fad in a minute - the best way to downsize your stuff is simple. You pull every "thing" of one kind out of wherever it is. You put it all together. You get rid of half(ish) of what's in the pile. And then you put the smaller amount of stuff you're keeping back in its closet again.

This is a terrible approach.

If you're like most of my clients, you'd hire me because you find organizing painful and difficult. Pulling something like shirts out to look at - that won't be too bad. All the shirts. On the bed. Let's look through them.

Actually, let's sort them into piles of long-sleeved and short-sleeved first. Oh, plus a pile for the button-downs. Ok. Three piles. Go!

.........

I have never worked with a client who could get rid of half of their shirts - or anything else - in a short period of time. People who can do this easily don't need help with organizing. I can hear my clients' reasoning, and it makes perfect sense. For some - they travel. They need multiple sets of clothing ready when they come back and head right into a work marathon. For some it's sentimental - the clothes that they don't wear mean something, and there aren't that many they really do wear. Some have already been winnowing their possessions. Some are in the middle of weight loss or weight gain and don't want to have to go shopping when their size changes, just to follow the rules of some over-simplified one-size-fits-all fad. Some have just lost a parent or sibling and the problem is that all the stuff cluttering up their home isn't theirs, and they have no idea where to begin.

I call this a fad because it misses one truth, known by all people who own Stuff: the stuff that's hardest to sort and get rid of is always the stuff that doesn't fit neatly into any category. Shirts aren't that bad - but what do you do with the contents of THAT DRAWER? Everybody has one. In my house, it's a combination of office supplies, hardware, memorabilia, and junk that should really just get tossed. And what if half of your clothes are in storage for winter? What if your parents' entire house-worth of stuff is in storage? What if, like most people who have trouble organizing, you see each of your possessions as unique, irreplaceable, and emotionally charged? What if you have art supplies - does this mean it's time to say goodbye to all the warm colors, or should you get rid of all the subtle ones?

Even if you're nowhere near being a hoarder, sorting most stuff into a few simple categories and getting rid of half of each category probably won't work for you. That's why I think this method won't be around for long. Basically, it won't work unless you're already reasonably well-organized, or don't own that much to begin with.

If you're *not* already well-organized, there is no cookie-cutter way to get there. I prefer tackling things one space at a time - a room, or a closet, are pretty easy to sift through in a few hours, in most cases. I try to keep things neat while they're being sorted or winnowed, so you don't have a lot of cleanup to do after organizing just one kind of thing. What I prefer, though - well, it doesn't much matter unless you decide to work with me.

There is one thing I can tell you. Getting organized is going to take time - your time - because you'll have to develop and get comfortable with an organizing method that actually works for you. And that's the really important thing: make it work for you. Don't listen to people telling you there's only one way to organize your stuff - they're wrong. You can organize it, or leave it disorganized, in thousands of different ways. The entire point of organizing should be to make your space easier to navigate - and more enjoyable to inhabit - FOR YOU. 

Taking the debris of a life, or several lives, and imposing some kind of order on it is simple... in concept. It only takes your time to get it done. If you go in expecting the process to be easy and fast, you will be disappointed. Working with a professional organizer can make it easier to start with, but maintaining organization is a challenge that will always, always take your commitment and your time. Minimizing that time is useful. Minimizing your stuff is also useful, in some cases. But if you rush in with a set of abstract rules and no understanding of what you need from your space, you'll end up with a bigger mess than you had when you started. Don't do that to yourself.

It's up to you whether you make a commitment to yourself and your space to be more organized. For some people, it's worth it. For others, it isn't. But rigid systems that claim to be The One Right Way are only useful if they happen to work for you. If they don't, ditch them. Do things your way. It may not be easy, but in the long run it will work for you - and that's what matters.

More organization isn't always a good thing. This pantry would drive me crazy.

More organization isn't always a good thing. This pantry would drive me crazy.

Buying Nothing but Food: week 1 (checking in)

IT'S WORKING!

I have bought no stuff except food this week, and it is awesome.

Somehow, in ways I don't understand, my capacity for buying stuff appears to be tied to my capacity for creating stuff. The same week I cut myself off from buying things other than food, I finally started writing stories again. For the first time since... high school? Yep. High school.

That's one side benefit I was definitely not expecting.

It hasn't been all sunshine and daisies. I realized less than a day into my year-long resolution to Buy No Stuff that I had at least one project I would have to nix; I had been planning to get a smart TV, and get rid of the rickety tower of milk crates I currently use to prop up the Netflix computer while I exercise. On the other hand... I was also going to sell the computer that has been my Netflix-portal. And I really don't need to do either of those things. The milk-crate-Netflix tower works fine for now, and I can wait until it stops working to fix it. (Besides, although it's been a good 6 months, there's no guarantee I'll still be exercising as much in another 6.)

That said, this first week of buying nothing has helped me really see how much I already have. I'm pretty sure I have enough shampoo for the next year. I have enough bars of hotel soap for the next ten years, so I'll probably end up giving most of them to a local shelter. I have more clothes than I need, though by the end of this year I may only have one or two pairs of pants left in wearable shape. I don't have (or want) a printer, or a CD player, and that's how I like it. I have so many art supplies that I've been giving them away so I have space to work with the ones I actually like. I even have enough board games to keep me busy all year (though at some point next year I'll probably acquire a copy of Ricochet Robots).

More than those individual categories of stuff, though, this week I've been noticing the way privilege makes this goal possible -- even reasonable. I live in a house where we don't lock our doors. In the eleven years friends have been living here, there's never once been a robbery. I didn't need to go out and buy a bunch of supplies before starting this project, because I inherited a house-full of stuff when my mom passed away. I've been sifting through it and giving it away as quickly as I can, and luckily there's space in our garage for all the things I still don't know what to do with.

This year-long goal probably isn't one that would work for everyone. I hear kids grow pretty fast; they'd need clothes sometime during a year. Babies need diapers, people with retail businesses need stock, and sometimes things we need day-to-day up and quit. A friend suggested a modification of the rules that allows replacing things if they break, or get used up, and I think that version would work for many more people.

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Even if you have to modify the goal, I'd encourage you to try out a ban on
shopping for a while. Try a week, or a month. Let yourself relax into a way of being that doesn't involve buying stuff for a while, and see what that freedom lets you discover about yourself, your priorities, and your life.

What's so important that you have to buy it right now, anyway? Could you wait a few weeks or a month before shopping again? Do you buy enough stuff to run up credit card debt? What do you expect would change about your life if you didn't buy things you didn't need?

2016: A Year Without Buying Stuff

A couple of years ago, right after the holidays, the idea of buying anything suddenly started to feel really overwhelming. I had just gotten gifts for people and spent more time than I usually do in stores. As a reward, I decided to buy nothing (except food) for a month. That month was one of the best months of my life, and I wrote about it for my business' blog. That entry is still online here. I called the experiment "Luxury Month" because not buying stuff felt like the most relaxing thing in the world.

Last month, December 2015, I tried playing the Minimalist Game with a friend. It was a great exercise in getting rid of stuff I no longer use, and I got rid of more than 500 things during that month. I didn't quite follow all the rules -- I added a personal challenge to throw nothing away, and ended up making a couple of massive donations to Goodwill -- but I stuck with the spirit of the challenge, and it was a great experience.

But.

There are *two* practices that land you in a situation like that, where you need to get rid of a bunch of stuff. The obvious one is that once you have a lot of stuff, you need to up and get rid of the stuff you don't want. (Re-homing stuff is one of the big things I help my Home Harmonizers clients with -- I help sort stuff that's worth keeping out from trash and recyclables, I deliver donations -- and it's really satisfying work.) But learning to get rid of stuff is just one piece of the puzzle.

The other crucial piece of that puzzle is learning not to acquire stuff.

We live in a culture that places an extraordinary value on owning and acquiring stuff. We're bombarded with ads telling us that material possessions are worth having. We're told they make our lives easier, make us look cooler, make our homes more inviting, make us more popular or successful or satisfied. It's pretty clear that the people and companies that sell stuff have a vested interest in making us believe that we need to own and acquire a lot of things to be happy.

But I believe that buying stuff impoverishes us. Both because stuff costs money, and because money is an insidiously one-dimensional way to interact with the world. When we think about our interactions with people and places in terms of dollar value, we miss all the other values that exist in the world. When I did the Luxury Month experiment, one of the things I loved most about it was that it changed how I saw stuff. I could walk through a mall with friends and admire everything honestly, because I knew none of it was going to come home with me. I could look at websites online and come away with some great ideas for how to repurpose stuff I already owned, because I wasn't going to spend money buying something premade online.

I'm a professional organizer. I've seen far too many of my peers, including best-selling author Marie Kondo, indulge in shopping sprees that land them with tons of new stuff all at once. What do you think keeps all of us professional organizers working? The fact that so many people have never learned how to stop buying stuff -- and eventually, when you buy a lot of stuff, it overwhelms you. The single best thing my clients can do for their homes and themselves is take a break from buying stuff. So this year, that's what I'm going to do too.

Here's my goal for 2016: 

I am not going to buy any physical stuff other than food.

A couple of exceptions, because good rules tend to come with those:

  • I will buy toilet paper, unless I come up with a reasonable alternative. (This didn't come up during luxury month.)
  • I may buy shampoo and toothpaste if I run out by the end of the year, or the ingredients to make substitutes
  • I will buy physical things that my car and my bicycle need to work (gas, oil, tires, windshield wipers)
  • If unavoidable business expenses come up that involve buying physical stuff (like shipping materials), I will seek secondhand materials before buying anything new.

What do you expect the biggest challenge will be for me this year? Do you think I'll need to make any more exceptions to my rule? Will you join me in a week, a month, or the full year of buying nothing? I'll keep you posted on how it goes, and share some of my best experiences NOT-buying stuff as the year goes on.

Here's to a Year Without Buying Stuff!

Backpacking & Organizing: an unlikely pair?

Backpacking in California, 2015

Backpacking in California, 2015

If you've never gone backpacking* before, getting ready for it can be weirdly mysterious. I've watched this process before, when I've helped friends get ready for their first backpacking trips. They don't quite know where to start. When you have to carry everything on your back, the impetus to lighten the load is powerful. But just knowing that really doesn't help. The problem is that without having already gone through the process of packing a backpack and living out of it for a few days, you probably don't have the tricks and tools that make this kind of adventure appealing. 

You might be wondering what backpacking has to do with organizing. In essence, both backpacking and organizing offer systems for simplifying your life. For a backpacker, the motivation to minimize is clear: you don't want to carry more than you have to when you're hiking. It hurts. Organizing seems a little more opaque at first glance; after all, you don't have to carry all the stuff you own with you every day. But you do pay for the stuff you own, in various ways; you pay for space to keep your stuff in. Every time you move, somebody has to carry all that stuff. Maybe you keep a storage unit, instead of getting rid of the stuff you don't want in your home space. 

Paradoxically, some of the most profound experiences I've had with Home Harmonizers have nothing to do with stuff. Like backpacking, organizing is not about the gear - it's about the people, and the experience, and what you can learn from it. I wish more backpacking articles talked about that. But there is a logic to the nuts and bolts approach. Taking leaps in bite-size chunks makes the whole experience a little easier to approach. So I'm going to break it down for you, and come back around to organizing again at the end.

Backpacking is pretty simple, when you get right down to it. The way I've started thinking about preparing for a backpacking trip is from a place of survival. The question I start with: What do you need to survive in the wild?

At first, the answers are almost second nature. Food, water, shelter. There! That's all. But go much beyond that, and the answers aren't so intuitive - at least, not until you get used to the process, and it becomes intuitive all over again. 

FOOD
Easiest and quickest: protein bars. These are high-density calories and perfect to keep you on your feet for long days of hiking. But while they take zero time to prepare (win!), there's something way more satisfying about hot food than pre-prepared food when you're hiking. 

Which brings us to the complicated bit: the backpacking stove. Tons of models. Tons of kinds of fuel. The old-school kind were complicated enough that I backpacked without any stove for a few years. (I still haven't gotten tired of protein bars, though.) Thankfully, there are simpler models now, like the PocketRocket that weighs about 3 oz. and is remarkably durable. The stove paves the way for all kinds of awesome backcountry feasts.

I'm a huge fan of freeze-dried dinners. It's not just that they're chock-full of salt - these things actually taste delicious. I've brought them with me to conventions before, so I can make food for myself and avoid restaurant prices and lines. Oatmeal is great for backpacking too - any excuse to carry less weight on those trail days. Basically, anything you have to add water to when you're cooking it means you're saving weight on water.

Food-related things I usually forget: a pot for cooking in (doubles as a bowl for eating out of). A lighter to fire the stove up (pretty crucial). I never forget my spork, though.

WATER
Seems simple! You drink it! But unless you want to take your chances with giardia, which I will tell you is no fun, you'll need a good filtration system to make the water safe(r) to drink. And at least two 32-oz bottles to carry it in - more if you're on a trail with long distances between water sources.

A map is a must-have when you're backpacking. While most water sources cross the trail at some point, and while you can usually extrapolate from the terrain around you where you're likely to find water, it's not a good idea to gamble on whether or not you'll find water. Such gambles have ended relationships. I don't recommend them.

SHELTER
Oh, the possibilities... in wilderness first aid terms, shelter means protection from your environment. Think ways of staying dry and warm. Into this large category fall footwear, tents (or not), sleeping bags & pad, clothing, rain gear, and an enormous amount of other stuff. 

I won't go into every detail, but I will say this: less is more. Less weight to carry means less strain on your body. Fewer barriers between you and the world mean a more intense experience, and probably a more fulfilling one. I don't backpack with a tent any more, because I want to be able to see the stars when I sleep. Instead, I carry a waterproof backpack cover, and a bivvy sack - or bivouac sack - that keeps me mostly dry, and lets me watch the sky when it's clear out. It has a handy face-net to keep mosquitoes away, too.

That should give you an idea of how the backpacking system works, if not all the particulars. Let's jump back to organizing. 

The questions I ask most clients are deceptively simple. I start with broad strokes along the lines of "What do you want to do more of in your home?" Whether the answers are "work," "have friends over," or "have quiet, separate spaces for everyone who lives here," those answers help chart out a path for the work to follow. Despite the differences in how people want to use their space, the answers all boil down to one simple thing: everyone wants to create spaces in their house - using stuff - that shift the focus from the stuff the own to the people who will use the space. Whether it's a cozy reading room for an introvert or a family room slathered with sofas for a family that's always throwing parties, the goal is the same: make the space work for the people who use it. 

Given how much I think about how to make spaces work for people, it's hard for me to imagine taking a different approach to the question. It would be like getting ready for a backpacking trip by asking "what will I be sorry I didn't bring" instead of "what do I need?" Both questions are good to ask, don't get me wrong. But if you only think about what you might regret not bringing, you'll probably find yourself with a pack that weighs as much as you do - and that does not make for a good backpacking trip.

Why not approach your home space with that perspective? Ask yourself, "what do I need to make this space work for me?" Save the decisions about what to do with specific things you already own until after you have a game plan for your space - and if those things don't fit your plan, don't be afraid to let them go. After all, it's up to you what you make of your home. So go make it awesome for yourself.



*To clarify: I'm talking about the kind of backpacking where you're hiking on trails, in the backcountry. That whole "backpacking around <insert city name here>" is a whole different beast.

Tip: 4 minutes

Everybody wants to know how to keep their spaces organized. The most common question I get, from almost everyone I talk to about organizing, is "How do I keep the place looking like this?" 

My usual answer: 4 minutes.

Take 4 minutes of your day, every day, and focus on organizing one manageable little space. Choose a different one each day. Tidy a drawer. Clear off the surface of your dining room table. Straighten up the coat rack or coat closet. Go through last week's (or last month's) mail and recycle or shred everything you don't need. Get a basket or create a system for the mail you don't have time to deal with right now, but that needs to be dealt with at some point relatively soon. Go through the food you've had tucked away for months - put some aside to donate, or throw away what's expired. With an investment of 4 minutes, if you really do it every day, you'll be able to make surprising progress towards keeping your space organized. 

But... lately I've started to think that maybe my answer is too simple. Maybe it's simplified enough that it's worth complicating, just a little. Because saying that it takes 4 minutes a day to organize is a trick. It's a trick that's designed to get you to notice the shape your space is in, and incorporate the little time it takes to keep places organized into your daily routine - but it's still a trick.

The trick in giving "4 minutes" as the answer to that question is that it covers up what's really going on. It is true that keeping spaces organized doesn't take that long, if you do it regularly. But it IS a basic change in the way you interact with your space. Taking those 4 minutes every day is a commitment to yourself, an affirmation that a well-organized home is important to you. It will change how you interact with your stuff. Perhaps it will make you a little more deliberate in deciding whether or not to bring new things into your space. It might shift your priorities ever so slightly. This might not be exactly what will work for you. But it is worth noting that the very commitment can become a point of discord if you live with a person (or several people) who haven't made the same commitment themselves. And the decision to take those 4 minutes every day - or not, if it's not the right thing for you - is one that should not made blindly, thinking that's the only thing that will change. It feels wrong to withhold at least a hint that, like any decision, there may be consequences to your choice that go farther than just having a well-organized house.

What those changes will be... well, you tell me. 

Google Play: your free online music library?

Update, 2016: Spotify is easier. But I still use Google Play to keep track of old favorites.

So... confession time. My music has never been well organized. In fact, it's been a real pain to get it all from CD (or DVD) to computer to iPod to mobile phone to other computer... every time I need to replace just one of those devices. Add to that the fact that some music is in my husband's iTunes account, and some is in mine… it's a real tangle.

But Google Play offers the best way out of that tangle that I've seen yet. With all my music stored in one place, on the cloud, I don't have to worry about transferring it all to a new device, or losing it if my computer goes haywire or gets stolen. It's just there - and free - and I can finally get rid of those CDs that have been clogging up my desk drawers for years. It's such a relief!

Here's how it works: Google Play offers free storage for up to 20,000 songs. You'll download an application called "Music Manager" to help upload the music. It could take a couple of days with a good internet connection to upload everything if you have a big collection. But once all your music is stored on Google Play, you can access it in a couple different ways - and your playlists never get lost. (At last!!) On a mobile device, you can create playlists that are available whether or not you have an internet connection. 


There are all kind of perks about keeping your favorite media on the cloud - because Google Play isn't just limited to music. Books, movies, magazines, it's all explained here.

Drawbacks: Two big ones. 

First: if you want to listen to all your music through Google Play on the computer, you'll need an internet connection to play your music. Could be awkward if you spend a lot of time traveling and listening to music on a laptop. 

Second: If you have more than 20,000 songs - well, congrats on an impressive collection! - but currently, there's no option to add additional storage. I'd guess that Google will be rolling that out soon. If not, there are always options like Amazon's Cloud Player or iTunes Match that, while not free, also don't have that 20,000-song cap on storage. All in all, I'm just happy to finally have all my music in one place. It's that same sense of satisfaction - the "ahhh, NOW things are working better" - that's at the heart of why I love organizing. 

What IS harmonizing, anyway?

As a professional Harmonizer, a good part of what I do is try to keep things simple. I don't have a terribly complicated philosophy or approach to organizing, but I've found it really helpful to describe to my clients what my goal is as a professional organizer - and why I call organizing 'harmonizing'. 

Harmonizing isn't about getting rid of stuff - necessarily. It's not about buying more stuff - usually. It's not even really about organizing the stuff you already have. Here's what it *is* about.

The heart of Harmonizing, for me, is a balancing act between the exterior and interior landscapes of your home and your self. It's a process of matching your needs as an individual with the framework of your home, your space, and your possessions. The end goal, in all cases, is to create an exterior landscape that supports and encourages you in pursuing the things that matter to you. And the shape of that exterior landscape depends entirely on the person who will inhabit it: you.

Some people need their space to be clear and completely uncluttered - some need artfully placed knick-knacks - some need practical but decorative containers for all their projects - some need chaotic clutter. For some people, getting rid of all those boxes in the attic will be a relief and a weight off their mind; for some it will be uncomfortable. My goal is never to push you to get rid of things you want to keep, but rather to help you figure out what you want from all your stuff. Not what other people say you want, or what you think you should want, or what the media tells you to want; what I do is help you clearly identify the possessions that really bring you joy, or ease, or even simple convenience, and the ones that matter to you. Once you know what you want from your stuff, it becomes much easier to pick out the things you own that do not serve you. 

And that's it. The Harmonizers philosophy and basic approach to organizing / harmonizing, in a nutshell. There's no judgement, no prescribed path to follow; just an opportunity to envision and create a home space that is in harmony with your vision for yourself. 

Consider this an invitation to talk about one of those topics that can be touchy in our culture - owning stuff, and how much is enough - or too much. If you have comments or thoughts about this - whether you think what's laid out above is a helpful 'philosophy', whether you have a strong opinion about owning less (or more!) stuff - I'd love to hear from you.

Ecological Footprints & the Big Picture

Chances are you've heard the term "ecological footprint" or "carbon footprint." But did you know that taking this kind of quiz can help you understand your impact on the planet, and prioritize changes in those parts of your life that have the greatest impact? Here's how it works.

When you take an ecological footprint quiz, you answer a bunch of questions about the way you currently live - everything from how much you spend on heating or cooling bills to your travel preferences to your diet. At the end, using a bunch of aggregated data (usually tailored to your region), the quiz will generate not only a "footprint" for what activities like yours require of the planet, but often a sense of how this fits in the larger picture. One of the quizzes I like best shows how many earths would be needed to support humanity if everyone currently living used the resources you do.

Every one of these quizzes is slightly different, but they do tend to agree on the big things. If you travel by plane, that's almost certainly the most damaging single activity you're engaged in, and reducing it (if you have viable alternatives) could be the single most important step you take in reducing your impact on the planet. And that's why I think it's worth taking one; they give you a glimpse of the big picture, and they show that a relatively small number of changes in your day-to-day routines can make a real difference in your personal impact on the planet we share.

Drawbacks: carbon footprint quizzes aren't terribly accurate or precise. By definition, they deal with big picture data. But most importantly, they don't point out the real benefits associated with changing those daily routines - increased health when you replace a commute by car with one by bicycle or train, more local connections when you go to the farmer's market, lower costs for your municipality when you choose drought-tolerant landscaping instead of a lawn that needs regular watering. Those added benefits and win-win-win situations - and the harmonies they bring to lives with too much discord - are the real reason sustainability is catching on, and the reason so many people are passionate about it.

Quizzes: The Center for Sustainable Economy has a comprehensive ecological footprint quiz at www.myfootprint.org that I recommend starting with. You can find a number of alternates by searching for "ecological footprint quiz". If you're really curious about how the quizzes work, try taking them a few times and just changing a few of your answers. Just switching from buying "most" things used to "all" things used can make a surprisingly big difference.

Need help budgeting? Try Mint.

I've been using Mint.com to keep track of my budget for almost 5 years now. It tracks purchases on all my bank accounts, categorizes them, and helps me track spending month by month. It's decently intuitive to use, and I've never had a problem with the security it offers. And it's entirely free. 

Mint has some features that, to my mind, make it very worth the minimal time it takes to set up. For example, it has sent me alerts several times when my bank charged fees I wasn't expecting. (I was able to get them reversed.) It tracks when my bills are due so I don't miss any. It also offers advice tailored to the way I spend, lets me know when spending in a given category is unusual, and - best of all - makes it really easy to set goals and track progress towards them. Whether you're saving up for a vacation or trying to get out of debt, the easy visual progress towards that goal can be a really helpful motivator.

The best reason to use Mint, to my mind, is that it directs your attention at what you're spending money on. Credit cards make it all too easy to buy without considering the actual impact of what you're buying down the line. Using Mint can help you consider what you really want to do with your money, reclaim your spending habits, and get out of debt that much faster.

Drawbacks: The main drawback is that it does take time to set up and manage all this financial information in Mint. While Mint will automatically categorize your purchases, it doesn't always categorize things correctly. If you buy things from the same places, you can set rules that govern how Mint does its categorizing, but buy from a new vendor and it's likely to end up somewhere unexpected. Keep a weather eye on Mint, especially for the first few months! I've gotten into the habit of checking it every couple of weeks to make sure things aren't too out of place, but checking once a month would probably be a little more efficient. 

There are a couple of other minor drawbacks, like the fact that you can't actually move your money around from within Mint, but for me, they're significantly overshadowed by how much easier Mint makes it to track spending from multiple accounts. And it's entirely online, so there's no need to make extra storage space in your house for more pieces of paper you'll never look at after you file them. Now that's a good deal.

Home Harmonizers Meets Sustainability: serving clients AND the planet

At Home Harmonizers, caring for the environment isn't just a job. We all know protecting our home involves more than protecting habitat, or wild places. Human life and human society depend on a healthy environment. By protecting the planet, we're ultimately protecting ourselves and our children. That's what sustainability really means.

The core mission of Home Harmonizers is to share tools that help us live more sustainable lives, while enjoying more comfort, fun, and a greater ability to focus on the things that really matter to us. Sustainability should be built into our lives, not tacked on as a chore that we try to remember to do once a week, like taking out the recycling.

But it's not all big picture stuff. Home Harmonizers is committed to minimizing its environmental impact in all aspects of its operations. Here are some examples.

The web hosting service I use, Fatcow, uses servers powered by wind energy. The company that makes my business cards, Moo, uses paper from sustainably managed forests. Even the case that the business cards come in is made from recycled pulp. The company laptop was not bought new, but as a refurbished product. I don't rent a dedicated office space, or have my own fax machine, or even my own printer. Not only does this choice keep my costs down; it also means that Home Harmonizers is a uniquely mobile and low-impact company. 

Oh, and speaking of mobility, I never travel by plane on work-related trips. Trains are a remarkably pleasant way to see the country, and they offer a great environment to get work done in, with far fewer carbon emissions that plane travel causes. While I do travel by car for some projects, I always try to use vehicles that get 30 miles per gallon or better. While in Chicago, I use the local non-profit car-sharing service, I-Go, and take advantage of the hybrids they have stashed around the city.

Home Harmonizers also offers clients help with the day-to-day aspects of sustainability. At no additional cost, I deliver your electronics that are ready to be recycled to Best Buy - they've finally started accepting old electronics for free! I take all your donations to secondhand stores, where they can be resold and reused if at all possible, and send the receipt for a tax-deductible donation back to you. If you're interested in lowering your monthly home energy costs, I can recommend some top-of-the-line companies that offer home energy audits.

So, what *else* can Home Harmonizers do for the environment? That's a question I ask myself regularly, and that question is how I stumbled across my first web host, Fatcow, and their 100% wind-powered servers. If you come up with other ideas, I'd love to hear them!

Planning a move? Test your new commute with Abogo (before you commit).

If you've ever commuted by car, you know what a pain it can be. Recent studies have shown that people tend to underestimate the impact a long commute has on their happiness. While a big house in the suburbs may feel more like success, that extra hour (or two) you spend in traffic every evening adds up. Fast.

So, if you're thinking of moving, it pays to consider your transportation costs. That's exactly what Abogo helps you do.

Abogo was developed to help you uncover the hidden transportation costs of living in areas that are more (or less) accessible. Their website uses a mix of household-level and regional data to deliver accurate estimates of what people in your neighborhood spend on getting around. 

It's incredibly easy to use. Just type in the address you're interested in. Abogo generates a "dollars per month" rating for transportation costs associated with that specific address, along with a regional average that lets you compare your address to others near you. The carbon footprint of all that transportation is calculated too. They recently added a really neat tool that lets you track the impact of gas prices on that "dollars per month" rating. 

Drawbacks: Some of Abogo's built-in assumptions may not apply to your household, so you may not actually be getting an accurate estimate of transportation costs for your commuting patterns - especially if you don't own a car, or don't use it as often as the tool expects you to. I've found the most useful feature to be the comparison of your selected address with the local area: it lets you determine which areas are cheaper and more convenient to get to, and make a choice of where to live that really works for you over the long term.

Here are a couple of sources, as requested. If you search for "commute happiness correlation" you'll find more articles and perspectives than I've listed here, though many refer to the same study as #1 does. 

  1. http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/03/30/commuting/ which refers to the actual study, here: http://ideas.repec.org/p/zur/iewwpx/151.html
  2. http://www.npr.org/2011/10/19/141514467/small-changes-can-help-you-thrive-happily

Freecycle: free, easy, neighborly

Freecycle is one of those beautiful ideas that I wish I had thought of myself. It's a simple premise: a network of volunteer-run websites let neighbors post things they want to give away, and things they need, and exchange them. And it's all free.

To get involved, just google "freecycle," click "browse groups," and sign up in your area. They ask that you start out by offering something for free. It can be something as simple as a three-ring binder, a book you've already read, or office supplies. Or it can be something big that you don't want to worry about carting out of the house - a dining room table or an old by

I've used Freecycle many times, both to give things away and find things I need, and it's worked really well for me. My best find was a beautiful old wooden desk that needed to be sanded and refinished. That was 5 years ago, and that free desk is still one of the most beautiful pieces of furniture in my apartment. I also picked up some great free lamps and curtain rods, all from people within a couple of miles of where I live.

Drawbacks: Sometimes people don't show up on time (or at all) to take the free stuff I offer. There is a temptation to get frustrated when people don't show, but really, it's their loss. To make sure I don't lose time waiting for them, I've started telling people when to show up instead of asking for times that work for them.

There are plenty of similar resources out there. Maybe your area has a Facebook Buy, Sell, or Free group. Look around, see what you find, and don't forget to let us know how it works!