Downsize Like a Project Manager

To downsize any area of your home, from hall closet to attic, thinking like a project manager will be an advantage. While project management may sound like the only thing more painful than organizing your home, these two pieces combined can really make your life simpler and streamlined … I promise!

In my previous post about Cascading Decisions, we looked at how downsizing projects require thoughtful but quick decision-making that can be assisted through clever planning. This planning also involves enumerating the steps required to meet a clear goal, and being creative and flexible to adjust as needed. Using a project management approach can supplant some of downsizing’s in-the-moment mini-decisions and create a bit of emotional distance which will help you avoid getting stuck. It is also a mindset that encourages time management.

Don’t think you can do this? If you’ve found yourself managing projects within your career or through social event planning, you’ll be using similar skills to those you’ve already developed. While this may not come to you naturally at first, begin to draw parallels between your project management experiences that may be applicable. You can do this.

In Cascading Decisions, I described how time awareness and “organizing your organizing” can help, as can clear goal setting. Taking this a step deeper, think about what is driving you to make this change: to save time? money? feel more relaxed in your home? The intention behind it all will ground your planning and decision-making.

Set a clear goal. Instead of dreaming about a Martha Stewart-like home or a minimalist space you’ve admired in Dwell magazine, make sure your goal is realistic. Splitting your goal into parts keeps you reaching for the best version of your life while giving yourself concrete and manageable chunks to focus on. 

Break each goal into major tasks. These can be more general (ex. look through all the papers on your desk) or more specific (ex. organize your tax files by year and shred all unneeded papers). Whatever works for you. Maybe try a mix. Don’t be too specific or spend too much time on this. It is an iterative process.

Give yourself deadlines. Fortunately, there is no boss here breathing down your neck or birthday party surprise to fail at. But you still need to keep yourself on track and accountable. Make deadlines realistic and give yourself some flexibility to push them back when needed. But take them seriously and, perhaps, give yourself rewards for meeting them.

Enlist help. A project manager typically has a team of people that each bring a specific skill set to the group. Pick your team: a very organized friend, a family member who works hard, a professional organizer, a junk removal service, or (reluctant) spouse. Consider your team members when creating a timeline to ensure their availability and to take advantage of their potential contributions.

Adjust as needed. The process of moving toward a simple home can be full of discovery, both inside your home and inside yourself. Work with these surprises, not against them. Your project goals may adjust, you may develop new ones, and your process for doing the “grunt” work may improve. The key is to be aware, intentional, and focused no matter how the project evolves. Don’t look for excuses to give up!

Bask in the glory of your achievements. Not all project managers get this glory moment. But you will, because this is all about improving your life through simplicity. You will get to live it each day moving forward.

Think of project management as another team member of sorts. It’s easy to get lost in a tucked away shoebox of old photos or a seemingly endless stack of papers. Your project plan will help bring you back to your center, remind you of why you are doing this, and be at hand with a clear next step.

Cascading Decisions

Downsizing and organizing projects, no matter how seemingly small, are a series of cascading decisions. Most are mundane, many are tiring or tricky, and some are emotionally weighted.

No wonder most people quit, if they’ve even managed to start.

Decisiveness is not everyone’s strong suit and not everyone is adept at making certain types of decisions. Maybe it’s easy to decide what career to pursue or where to go on vacation. But you may be paralyzed by the thought of choosing a new health insurance plan or deciding between the chicken and the fish. Decisiveness comes in different shades.

Beginning a project with the acknowledgement that you will be confronted with a stream of decision points is best. Understand that one decision may hinge upon the next. Your project may start small and narrow, and then expand when you move one item into another room to, let’s say, put it on a shelf, only to discover that said shelf is packed too tightly and you need to remove items from it. In doing so, you rediscover a book left by an old friend you always meant to return. But finding their address is difficult because they moved recently and you only have their old one. You don’t want to reach out because a phone call will eat up another hour. You know they take a long time to respond to emails and don’t want to wait because now your living room has piles on the floor and you know you won’t be able to make it to the donation center for two weeks. These pesky, relentless decisions have cascaded down and you give up. That’s one way that disorganization happens and stays that way: the paralyzing nature of too many decisions. 

I don’t say this to dissuade you. It is necessary to highlight the truth in the pursuit of a solution: a little planning, a little patience, and a little rule making can go a long way.

Before you begin a project, be clear on your intention and how it connects to the broader goals and priorities in your life. Come up with corresponding rulesets. For example: I will use the library for books from now on. I will only keep books that I use for reference and that I haven’t read yet. I will donate all other books to the library because giving back to my community is an important priority in my life.

Pick a time to organize when you know you have some wiggle room if things go awry. Build in some minutes at the end of your session to clean up. Pre-assign bags/piles/boxes in the following categories for quicker follow through on your decisions: donate, give to a specific person, sell, trash, recycling, special disposables (ex. household hazardous waste, scrap metal, bulk items), and a “to do” box (ex. get batteries for an item, bring something to the dry cleaners). Acknowledge in your plan that, once your items are sorted into these categories, you will need additional time for follow through.

Decisions can be sticky but don’t let yourself get stuck. Get into the mindset and rhythm of decisiveness, even if that’s not your proclivity. Attitude is something you can adjust along side proper planning. Become a decision-making machine. It gets easier the more you do it and, with all the little decisions you make, you are sure to get in your practice.

Landfill Purgatory

Regardless of project scope, the size of a client’s home, or their sustainability awareness, no one wants anything to go into the landfill.

At first, I was happy and encouraged to hear this. People are willing to spend the extra thought and time to give items to friends, to donate, and even inquire about recycling options. All of this is a sustainability positive move and part of the experience of letting go. 

But there is another side to the “but I don’t want it to go in the landfill!” conundrum. You have things that you don’t need: either because you bought them, out grew them, accepted them without thinking, or snagged them without reason. While it’s important to think about where your stuff goes next, it’s more important to prevent them from coming into your possession in the first place. The hard truth is that you should have thought of that first. The more significant hurdle is not to stop holding on, it’s to not grab hold. The focus is on the wrong side of the equation. Don’t wait to see the problem until after the fact.

Understand that keeping items in your home that you no longer need or really want, is simply landfill purgatory. Keeping this stuff is only delaying the inevitable; you aren’t truly avoiding the landfill. It doesn’t help from a sustainability perspective. So putting those destined-for-the-landfill items in the trash (if there aren’t viable alternatives) is an important part of this process. It’s part of the undoing and coming face-to-face with the consequences of our actions. It is a lesson often best learned the hard way.

Giving something to a friend or donating it doesn’t mean it won’t go to the landfill either. You may be convinced your friend wants that thing, but they were actually just being polite. Or maybe they thought they wanted it at first but a couple months later, it’s in the trash bin and you are left with a false sense of landfill diversion. Donation centers don’t resell everything they receive for various reasons. In other words, people want your stuff less than you think.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle, reuse, donate, or give stuff to friends. Anything you can do to avoid the landfill and get more use out of a product, especially if it means not purchasing another one, is the right move. But understand that you can avoid this conundrum in the future by understanding today that so much stuff will take up residence in the landfill in the end despite your best intentions. It’s better for you to make smarter purchases to begin with and collect as little as possible.

The Burden of "What If?"

“But what if I need this someday?”

I hear this question constantly. Any little thing in our home, even if dust covered, recently found, or presumed to be junk, suddenly becomes so important we can’t bear to part with it. 

Why is this so common? It relates to the general difficulty of getting rid of something once we have it. Once something is in our home, we own it. We associate with it and then it may begin to creep into our identity. This is when we begin to lose control over what we have and tend to keep things around as a default. It is less about what we want in our homes and really a misunderstanding about what we should keep. Let your home only include just the things you would want if starting from scratch.

“What if’s” manifest our fears because we put so much importance on stuff in general. Sometimes we forget that we are creative and that having the perfect thing at the perfect time is completely unnecessary. Occasionally, you may be minorly inconvenienced but there is likely another way to accomplish what you want to do without the perfect item. Occasionally, you may find that there is a financial cost sometime in the future but that it’s miniscule. Each person’s maximum replacement cost threshold is different. Some say $20 is a good rule of thumb while others say $10. Perhaps for you, it’s $2. Respond to this based on your financial situation, following a rule of thumb that is most comfortable for your current lifestyle. But keep in mind that in most cases, you don’t need to worry about a replacement cost because in the future you would not buy it again. 

So while a few of these “what if’”s are more reasonable (ex. the item is unique, very expensive), most are not. What is the likelihood of the “what if” scenario coming true and what would be the consequence of it not being true? These are the more helpful questions to ask. If you dig a bit deeper beyond your assumptions, you are more likely to let go. An organizing project will take much longer and result in you keeping more stuff than you need unless you address the “what if” problem head on. Instead of framing the question as “what if” I need this someday, ask yourself how bad the negative consequences would be to not have it. In other words, assume you are getting rid of it, unless you are able to make a bulletproof case for keeping it. 

Having some rules of thumb about true cost of replacement and how many multiples of items to keep are helpful in speeding up the decision making process. In the end, “what if’s” are a deterrent and distraction. By asking better questions, you can reassert control over your home space.

On Zero Waste, Part 2

I gave an introduction to zero waste in a post last year and would like to explore further how one can implement zero waste principles. To this end, I interviewed Erin, a former client, on the zero waste path. I say path, because zero waste is less of a destination and more a series of actions that you can slowly introduce into your life.
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Dara: What were the first steps you took to go zero waste?

Erin: I first switched from tea bags to loose tea. I love tea and drink it everyday, so this left me with a positive feeling. Next, I began buying as much as possible from the bulk sections at a variety of grocery stores. I brought my own glass jars (some of which I bought for this purpose). 

I learned that not every cashier is used to it dealing with brought-from-home jars and other customers stop to ask me questions about what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like an ambassador for zero waste!

Dara: What were the most difficult changes to make?

Erin: For me, it was difficult to move away from bottled shampoo. I tried baking soda and vinegar as well as a shampoo bar but they didn’t work well enough for me so I found myself going back to bottled shampoo.

Dara: Where should someone new to zero waste start?

Erin: Just pick one thing (ex. rice). Get into the habit of buying it in bulk with a reusable container or bag. It takes time to figure out a system but once you have it set up, it’s just as easy as your former routine. It becomes just what you do. 

Also, get tips from someone else who is working toward zero waste. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Set up your systems slowly. 

Check your perfectionism. Don’t expect to only fill one mason jar with your landfill trash.

Dara: Was it difficult to get your husband and kids on board?

Erin: They like the idea of reducing their waste as long as they can have the delicious things they like. As a result, we still buy some packaged foods. But they enjoy some of our zero waste practices.

Dara: What keeps you motivated?

Erin: I’ve been doing this for about 9 months and I’m still working on it. 

So many things in life are ambiguous but this is very satisfying, very tangible, and concrete. For example, I really enjoy composting and making veggie stock. Getting to be in touch with the cycle of life is very fulfilling.

Dara: Why did you decide to create an Instagram page about your zero waste journey?

Erin: I was struck by how perfectionist the zero waste ethos can be sometimes. It is better to approach it imperfectly than not at all. So I started my Instagram page because I wanted to do a fun and creative project, and share advice. It is sort of my secret project- until now!

Dara: Any specific advice you’d give to others?

Erin: The perfect is the enemy of good. Big sustainability issues are difficult to affect, so we think: what’s the point? Try to get away from that line of thinking and begin taking steps.

Plastic-Free Is Where We Need To Be, Part 2

Last year, I wrote about seeing plastic waste wash up on a beautiful island. The immediate visual impact of those two unlikely images coalescing was harsh, and the repercussions can be daunting and haunting.

We never stop to think about the persistence of plastic after use. It’s made for durability so it won’t degrade in our lifetime. The only type of plastic that may decompose in this timeframe is the kind marked at “1.” But that is in ideal conditions and plastic cannot actually biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Despite being a durable product, 33% of it is used once and then discarded. (Plastic Pollution Coalition)

You’ve likely been taught that recycling is the solution to the plastics problem. But recycling plastic is a “less bad” action. Plastic can only be recycled once and into a material that cannot be recycled again. In the U.S., only 8% of it makes it into the recycling stream. The rest ends up in landfills or becomes litter, and a small portion is incinerated. (Plastic Pollution Coalition). Not using plastic is the only environmentally positive thing to do. 

Aside from its persistence in our ecosystem, plastic affects human health. Chemicals leached by plastics are in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments. (Plastic Pollution Coalition)

These are only a couple of problems with plastics, affecting us and our future generations directly. But, as with most environmental issues, even if you know it’s a problem today and even if you can see how the problem will be worse in the future, it is difficult to undo your daily lifestyle to accommodate this information. It’s difficult because you grow accustomed to the way things are and finding the impetus to change is tough.

The good thing about the plastics issue is that it only involves tweaks to your day-to-day routines to get closer to a plastic (almost) free life. It’s hard to stop using a car when your life infrastructure is built around it but it’s not too difficult to replace plastic bags with reusable ones.

For this Earth Day, instead of making changes related to numerous environmental issues, let’s focus on just this one. Here are some habits to upgrade:

  • Always refuse plastic bags. Keep reusable bags in your car, if you have one, and a few in a place in your home where you can easily grab them. If you’re only purchasing a couple things on-the-go, consider holding everything in your hands.
  • Replace sandwich and larger, sealable bags with reuasable sandwich bags or containers.
  • Don’t purchase single use plastic drink bottles. If you didn’t bring a refillable bottle of your own and are going to pass out from unexpected thirst, choose a drink in a can or glass bottle.
  • Bring your own takeout containers or eschew take out/delivery. Homemade is better anyway! 
  • Always say “no straw” when eating out. If your teeth are sensitive to cold, ask for no ice too.
  • Don’t use plastic wrap. Use a reusable container or cover with a plate. 
  • Be aware of food packaging at the grocery store. Try buying in bulk with reusable containers or choose products that are not in single-use plastic containers.
  • Don’t buy products made of plastic if alternatives exist.

Start slow and set up systems that work well with your current habits and routines. New habits will soon seem like second nature.

Remember: Plastic is cheap but it’s still not worth it.

 

The Unfulfilling Desire to Fill Space

We’ve all been in social situations where we’re suddenly struck by a moment of awkwardness, or strange silence. It feels like something has gone wrong or we’ve mistakenly turned into a dead end. Then, we look for an action as a solution, forgetting that doing nothing is also an action. So we begin to tell a story, or ask a question, or talk about nothing, really. We try to fill the space because empty space can feel both uncomfortable and incorrect. Something must be done about it. The way we fill the space tends not to be meaningful or representative ofourselves, but we do it anyway. There is space and it must be filled, like there is a glitch in the system.

We may look at undeveloped land and think of it as a waste. Why would land, perhaps with a great view, in a great climate, or in a great location, just “be.” Something must be done to it. There must be some human interaction to improve it. That’s part of our unsustainable system of growth. And it leaves us at a loss for wild places and does not allow nature to inspire and surprise us.

We’ve all looked at a new home’s vacant rooms and saw them as empty spaces in need of filling. That’s the word we use: empty. Not full of potential memories, or places to expand ourselves, or a warm shelter. If a space is considered too empty, it needs “something” so furniture in brought in to solve the problem (which eventually gets covered or stuffed with stuff). Even when our homes are overwhelmingly full and disorganized, we may determine that the solution must be a purchase or an addition of something. Often times this is just a cover up of the underlying problem.

We seem to have the instinctual need to fill space: whether in conversation, out in nature, or even (especially) in our own home. How about looking for space, rather than trying to fill it? Let’s widen our stance and stretch out our arms, rather than to box ourselves in. My goal is not only to assist people in organizing their homes, it’s to help them create space. Space is what allows us to pause. Space is where we can find joy, where we can reflect, where we can just be. Space is a little bit of freedom.

One of the most beautiful experiences many of us have had is sitting in a comfortable silence. We describe it this way because most silences are uncomfortable. We tend to define our relationships on just how comfortable our silences are. When we don’t have the desire to fill space, we are happy, and we can just be. Your home can be this way too.

Redefining Luxury: Part 2

In my previous post, I brought together two ideas: luxury and minimalism. If you’re with me on this path, you’ve started to see junk as junk and stuff as an obstruction to a more luxurious lifestyle. I hope this change in mindset has helped you do away with items that distract you from this goal.

To keep this momentum, I’ve listed some ideas to help you visualize your soon-to-become luxurious space and put this mindset into practice.

Bedroom. A great way to make your home feel more luxurious is simply to make your bed and leave it unencumbered until it’s time for rest. I realize this seems obvious and almost annoying to hear but it’s worth saying (and doing). To make it less time consuming, reevaluate your bed’s accoutrement. Don’t let extra decorative pillows or excessive blankets turn making your bed a real chore. Make sure you actually like what’s on your bed. Nice sheets and blankets are not expensive. I make mine quickly but love tucked in corners so I spend the extra 30 seconds to do that. Figure out what feels most special to you.

I can’t resist adding: if you have a chair or piece of furniture where you leave semi-used clothes to pile up, please stop. While it’s great to minimize washing clothes when they aren’t smelly or dirty, this pile does nothing to produce an inviting space. After you’ve given an item of clothing the night to “air out,” put it away. Perhaps right after you’ve made the bed.

Along these lines, if you can’t fit your clothes neatly into your drawers or closet, it’s probably time to donate some clothes. Also, after you finish doing your laundry, fold it and put it away. You do have time to do this, I can assure you. If you did it right away, it will feel like less of a chore. This is a simple routine that can turn your bedroom into a place of luxury instead of continued chaos.

Finally, only have the most basic furniture in your bedroom. Any additional furniture (bedside tables, additional dressers, end of bed benches, chairs, etc.) invite more stuff into your space and allow for these pile ups to occur more easily. A bedroom is just a place for rest, changing clothes, and relaxing before going to sleep. Keep focused on those functions.

Bathroom. Make it spa-like! If you’ve ever been to a nice spa, you know that it’s luxury is in it’s absence of stuff. It’s clean, sparse, and what it does contain is of high quality. In your bathroom, only keep the things meant to keep you clean and healthy. Ensure there are no expired products (quick and easy to toss) or no-longer-used items (a little harder to let go of but you’re on a roll). 

Even though I am not a proponent of the single-use toiletries left out in hotels, I appreciate the look of and specialness these bottles evoke. When you walk in, they are the only things that you see. It’s the emptiness of the bathroom that creates a welcoming space. Try to mimic this by only having the most necessary, used-daily toiletries visible and make sure they look nice too. For example, I keep my hand soap in a vintage green glass ashtray and don’t use any plastic bottles. My extra towels are rolled (quite nicely, if I do say so myself) in a canvas basket on the window ledge for easy access. Be sure to look out for any non-bathroom items and remove them (though a couple of candles never hurt). This will keep the focus on your new spa-like space.

While we cannot always have hotel or spa amenities in our homes, it’s clear that less is more when it comes to luxury. We can use this as guidance and inspiration to bring some luxury back with us.

Redefining Luxury: Part 1

I’ve always been enamored with hotels. Even the mid-range ones seem special too me. I feel like a kid when I first enter one, even on a business trip. Taking a quick run and bounce on the bed, I immediately feel refreshed. There is something about a sparse space of which I am clearly fond. 

My admiration of hotels is part of my love of travel and trying new things. But it wasn’t until I launched Less = More full-time and began AirBNB’ing my place that I saw the close connection between luxury and minimalism. Now, I see more clearly how I like my space to be hotel-like (but with a bit more personalization). I feel relaxed returning home from a trip or even just a long day out for this reason. Why shouldn’t our homes feel luxurious in this way?

I recognize that luxury and minimalism are two words that don't tend to pair. But once you move past the old construct that having less stuff is living without or a sacrifice, it becomes evident that you are left with the most meaningful, needed, and higher quality items. You’ll view the removal of things as doing away with junk and the best stuff will become prominent. This creates a path toward a more open and relaxed space, bringing luxury and minimalism together.

Luxury and chaos are two words that don’t tend to mix, and for good reason. If you don’t live a simple life, and it is full of disorder, how can you enjoy or even see the beautiful and luxurious things that you own? An unmade bed with clothes scattered on the floor. Mail, some opened some not, splattered on a kitchen table. Broken things that need fixing. Unopened boxes with new items gathering dust. You can have a home filled with many “luxury” items, but if you treat your space this way, it’s not going to feel special.

The steps to achieve a home that evokes luxury begins with paring down the stuff you own. As you get rid of something, consider the luxury you will gain. When you are doing away with things you don’t need think about the times you’ve been away and never once missed these items. Think about how you would feel if you saw these items in a hotel room. Think about what would be worth giving up if you could feel like your home was a haven each time you stepped in. The idea is not to embrace the austere but, rather, to embrace elements of luxury that would make your home feel like the best aspects of a hotel. 

Perhaps start with one room in your home, like your bedroom, to focus on the more immediately attainable. Then, in my next post, I’ll walk you through some easy ways to bring additional luxury into your space.

Mindfulness = Minimalism

If you really think about it, you’d be happy with a lot less. The problem is, you don’t stop to pay attention.

In my last post, I wrote about non-attachment and how wanting and retaining material goods does us no good. In our day-to-day, we tend not to think about this. Or the thought, inspirational quote, or snapshot of a minimalist home space pops into our headspace … and then pops right out.

This is where mindfulness can help us. Another pearl of wisdom from Buddhist philosophy, we can gain much insight from this perspective and tool.

Mindfulness, in the way I practice it, is simply taking a beat and noticing what’s going on, and doing this without judgement. It’s stopping and acknowledging what’s happening but not so much with the analyzing. It’s being here and now. It’s awareness of the present moment. Here’s a simple example of how I first introduced it into my life:

When I worked in an office, and I was wrapped up in a stressful moment, my mind would be racing. You know the thing- a million thoughts seemingly at once. It would cover the full gamut of topics: my plans for the evening, something someone said to me earlier in the day, a thing I needed to remember to do, a cough from a nearby coworker, a memory, the way my shirt was fitting, all the things I needed to accomplish before the end of the day. Oh, and the actual task I was working on. While caught up in the madness of my mind, a little voice inside me, one that I had been cultivating and training, would let out a little squeak: “Dara. Daraaaaaa. Hello, Dara!!!” Then, I would stop. What is going on? Take a deep breath in. Now a slow breath out. Repeat until the mental noise starts to fade. Then, increase my awareness. A quick body scan alerted me to the incredible tension I was holding in my shoulders. I relax my shoulders. Take a couple more breaths. 

I acknowledged that I was having other thoughts that distracted me from presence. I didn’t try to address them individually at the moment. I just put them aside. I had a task to complete. I was at work, sitting in a chair, in my office, looking at a computer. With loosened shoulders and a calmer mind space, I returned to work … mindfully.

Your home, if overburdened with stuff, disorganized, and overwhelming, is a product of a life without much mindfulness. If you stop to be aware of the present moment, you could more easily see things simply for how they are, rather than the stories you weave about them. Or, conversely, not see anything and overlook it all with a label- clutter- and then ignore. 

If, instead, you take a moment to be present with your space and then with each item, determining if it holds purpose in your life, stepping toward minimalism becomes infinitely easier. What is it that you most need, that provides the greatest inspiration, that makes you the most happy? To answer these questions, you must take a moment to pause, to sit in the present moment.

To be clear, being mindful, isn’t thinking. In many ways, it’s the opposite. But I see it as the doorway to productive thinking. I must first be mindful before I can be ready to think most productively and insightfully about what I really want. It is what has made a minimalist lifestyle easy, and not a sacrifice.

When we don’t live in the past and worry senselessly about the future, when we hold ourselves accountable to the present, our possessions quickly wittle down. Post “mindfulness = minimalism” moments, we can double check with our more analytical brain to ensure we are keeping some specific items that are necessary for our future. I mean, this is about being practical. But if we act mindfully, we will find ourselves down the course of minimalism. In that, we find that minimalism isn’t the goal, finding mindfulness is.

Non-Attachment

One tool to exercise against the accumulation and retention of material items is the guidance of Buddhism. While a religion to some, it is also an insightful list of lessons for the human mind’s unhelpful tendencies.

A quick primer: The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are that (1) suffering exists; (2) suffering arises from attachment to desires; (3) suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases; and (4) freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path. Basically, we wouldn’t feel so bad if we stopped wanting things we can’t have. This goes not just for material items but for life circumstances as well.

As discussed in my last post, Admire Versus Own, the feeling of wanting to own something that we believe is beautiful instead of simply appreciating its beauty, is a manifestation of the second Noble Truth. If we can’t own that thing we desire, we feel bad. That bad feeling may come in the form of frustration that we don’t have enough money to afford it or we missed an opportunity to purchase or inherit it. Then we feel bad; then we suffer. 

We also form emotional attachments to the objects we already own: our mother’s old china, the broken watch our grandfather passed down, the 9th grade science project that still evokes pride, or even the project we started but never finished. These attachments tend to be stronger and somewhat buried. The effort to dig ourselves out is daunting, so we just keep the stuff. But instead of tackling each of these items individually, we can ease the process by reshaping our mind. We can practice non-attachment wholesale.

If we don’t attach ourselves to objects, if those desires subside, we can free ourselves from that aspect of suffering. If we don’t attach ourselves to objects, we can avoid allowing them to- destructively- become a part of our identity. If we acknowledge the truth in this, then we open ourselves up to a freer life and one with less suffering. Unlike other types of suffering that seem to attack us from out of nowhere, this one is completely self-created from start to finish. We have the ability to create this mind shift and enjoy life more.

Practice of the Eightfold Path (the 4th Noble Truth) is another tool. Much of this guidance is common across all religions and our collective understanding of what it means to be a good person: don’t lie or gossip, don’t steal, don’t be jealous, etc. It also introduces the idea of mindfulness: having a clear sense of one’s mental state, feelings, and bodily health. I think of mindfulness as simply a pause. It’s a bit of space we can create, millimeters of distance between our initial emotions and the resulting reactions, that can result in miles worth of greater understanding and patience.

In my next post, I’ll explore how, much like less = more, mindfulness = minimalism.

Admire Versus Own

There is a plethora of beautiful things in this world. You don’t need to own them, but admiring is (typically) free. 

I once took an interior design course and someone asked the instructor how he dealt with seeing all of these beautiful fixtures, finishes, and furniture while not wanting to buy it all. He explained that he would fall in love with those things while working on a project with a client. He’d appreciate and admire them. He would get something out of them- a certain joy and recognition of their design. Then, he was ready to let them go. He found a perspective that was of bounty, not wanting. 

I took that course ten years ago but still think of what he said. At the crux, he was avoiding the common response to seeing something we like and immediately wanting to have it, to own it. He was able to experience the energy that beautiful things bring to us, without the negative pull of “I want!” I believe we can hold greater appreciation of something if we don’t disrupt the moment by asking for more.

Many of my clients, and people I know generally, tend to collect cool and beautiful things: jewelry, art, crafts, the latest technology, collectibles of any sort. Or update their home with the latest find at Crate and Barrel. I’ve noticed they will often say, “Look at this thing I have. Isn’t it great?” What I find most telling about this is the need to both show me and receive some sort of confirmation that what they have is important. Going deeper, perhaps what we have becomes even more valuable if others see and acknowledge its importance. We don’t only accumulate stuff because we like it or need it, or feel the need to own versus admire. We see it as a means to identify ourselves. And we do this, at least in part, to create an image for others to view. 

I encourage you to watch yourself and see whether this is something that you do. Are there items in your home that you think make you appear interesting or unique in some way? Is it on clear display for guests to see? Do you tend to point them out? Keeping items with aesthetic value and reinforcing your ownership of them through external confirmation is not the most prudent way to determine what to keep and what to remove from your home. It will not help you simplify your life.

Consider that it can be deeply satisfying to admire things you will never own and resist turning your home into a sort of museum or means of self-worth. Then, you can admire the world without owning it. In letting go, you can have it all.

Plastic-Free is Where We Need to Be

There are multiple layers to the fight against “stuff.” We must look closely at all of them: unneeded memorabilia, too many clothes, the way we overcomplicate our lives, large houses that cement excess, and everyday throwaway items. Addressing the latter, this is the first of many plastic-related posts.

This issue is just another type of mosquito. I’m in Indonesia again on a peanut of an island- Gili Air. Aside from those incessant biters, there are countless plastic bottles and other plastic materials weaving their way into the grass and sand as if they were cold and trying to make shelter. Seeing trash on a beautiful beach morning was jarring. Picking out pieces of plastic refuse from the saltwater felt heavy. Paradise no longer exists. I would like others to experience the beauty of this place but know it won’t be possible if everyone’s mentality and resulting behavior does not change. 

I’ll pause for a moment to dissect what might seem contradictory. My work stems from the belief that people and the planet will be happier, healthier, and sustained though the generations if we lead simpler lives. It might seem that disposable items are perfect for making our lives simpler. That is their purpose and why they are popular. But I don’t believe they make our lives simpler.

When you have a reusable item, you don’t have to spend time or money or remember to pick up your disposable items at the store. You won’t run out. You have it; that’s it. No trash to pick up or throw away. A simpler life is also a healthy life. Plastics numbered 3, 6, and 7 should be avoided. While plastics numbered 1, 2, 4, and 5 are considered safer, 1 and 2 plastics are made only to be used once. You may think you are helping the planet by reusing them, but it can be harmful to your health. Also, they cannot be heated in the microwave or otherwise overheated.

A simple life is one where your actions are aligned with your priorities which hopefully include environmental responsibility. It is a life where you are connected to your food and the consequences of your actions directly. You don’t need plastic water bottles, cling wrap, sandwich bags, or freezer bags. There are easy alternatives. Let’s readjust our purchasing habits so there will someday again be beaches with only mosquitoes, no trash.

A Thousand Little Good-Bye's and One Big One

My job is to get rid off things. Some things to the recycling bin, some in the donations box, some to friends or family. It’s a thousand little good-byes. They are quite easy for me. It’s other peoples’ stuff. Sometimes, I see a freckle of a client’s childhood burn a bit when they know it’s time to let go. And sometimes they can’t let go in that moment. We quickly enter these tough decisions, even though my clients begin as strangers. Yet I feel that I know them once I take my first survey of their home and hear about what lead them to this point.

I get rid of things for myself sometimes too. I’m always analyzing if my physical world best represents my current goals and the things that make me most happy. So every donation box or garbage bag contribution is a good feeling. I love all of those good-byes because they represent a refocus, they represent renew, and lead to recharge.

Then I had an unexpected moment with a client. We’d been working together for two months to prepare for her move. She retired this year, was planning to sell her home, and move to another state. I was so excited for her. She’d be moving near family, downsizing quite a bit, and I thought she’d be quite successful with her home sale. After a session or two, her perspective changed from focusing on the difficult aspects of such a transition to excitement as well. She worked really hard to be thorough and take advantage of this opportunity to prepare for her next chapter. We worked on visualizing her new place and the bigger changes she could make in the way she lived.

At the end of our last session, as typical, we sat down to recap and review any remaining to do’s and next steps. That’s when I realized something peculiar: It was time for me to say goodbye, to her. We completed our work together, she is moving, and I am likely not going to see her again. 

I had helped her say a thousand little good-byes, and now I had to say a good-bye that filled me with, perhaps, a similar reluctance to what she’d experienced over and over through our work together. When you are in the business of helping people get rid of old things, you forget that sometimes saying good-bye to the people with whom you’ve created a new relationship is part of the job too.

Why I Don't Use Before and After Photos

There is a lot "they" say about how to market your services.

When you help people downsize and organize, "before and after" photos seem to be the language. But I am resistant. Anyone can make a space look clean and clear. This can be done after a legitimate overhaul or by moving things out of the way for a photo shoot. Some consider these visuals as proof of work well done. Others see them as aspirational or motivational. But this work is far less about clear, white surfaces: it's about the way you engage with objects in your life. It's about priorities. So these photos miss the point.

I wish, instead, there was a way to capture the experience of sadness, joy, and relief as someone finally lets something go; that moment of release. It is powerful and tends to create an open space far larger than any empty closet shelf.

Everyone is different. Peace and productivity in the home follows this same principle. Some people are visual and tactile in how they interact with the world. Their necessities and material inspiration must be visually available in a way that registers with them. If you see yourself in this group, I worry that these types of photos either make you feel that you can never achieve order in your life or even pay a bill on time. Or you end up reaching for an ideal that doesn't meet your needs.

Sometimes the biggest change or a-ha moment comes part way through a project. The "after" is more of an afterthought at that point.

There is no photo that represents these efforts or even the outcomes because this is about rethinking what you need and what you want, and creating functional systems that allow you to get things done while be inspired and comfortable. Really good systems are made out of habits as much as they are based on the physical space. And we all hold a different vision of how a organized and meaningful life manifests in our home. Life can never be picture perfect and it doesn't need to be to find simplicity.

 

This is Freedom

The theme of freedom is strongly present in my life, often as a driving force in my decision making. With July 4th, freedom and independence come in the form of patriotism. I'd like to reflect on the way the two are intertwined.

Engaging as a consumer is often posited, both latently and with firework-like emphasis, as a patriotic duty. It is also seen as a means to find happiness, to find pleasure, to make life easier, and to gain self worth.

But being a consumer does not make you patriotic and it certainly does not make you free: The more you buy, the more money you relinquish. The more you keep, the more you have to maintain and store. The more you have, the more you identify yourself with your stuff. And investing in our economy at the expense of our environment couldn't possibly be an act of patriotism. Harming our land, wildlife, and using up natural resources has long term and lasting effects for our country.

Freedom and independence are also about thinking for yourself. 

Most of what we believe, as it relates to the activity of purchasing, social morays, and expectations for our own possessions, is a result of companies marketing their products to us. I hate people telling me what to do or what to think. Don't you?

Consider gift giving for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays (both religious and cultural). If you don't give a gift in certain circumstances, you might be seen as cheap or without social grace, even though you are attempting to be mindful of the environmental impact, the recipient's needs, and issues of waste. Consider the idea that we deserve "stuff" as rewards. What can you ever do in your life that means you deserve a iPad? I'm sure you work hard and are a wonderful person. But what does it mean when we think of our accomplishments in life as transactional?

It's easy to mistake the impact of marketing as thinking, whether that be how we choose to handle social culture, expectations for our own lifestyles, and, in part, our world view.

Unless, of course, we truly think for ourselves. That is real freedom.

Backpack as Home: Bali Edition

A few weeks ago, I loaded my necessities into a Mammut 30 liter backpack.

I was excited to do this, not only because it was in preparation for my trip to Bali and the Gili Islands, or that I'm one of those rare breeds that enjoys packing. It's that I like the activity of paring down, reducing life down to near essentials, and doing away with distractions (as I wrote about in my previous Backpack as Home musing).

While traveling, I had a few additional thoughts related to minimalism:

(1) A fire at my hostel erupted the fourth morning of my trip, just minutes after I began writing this entry. Because of the quick and disorganized evacuation, I left with my backpack full of clothes ... but without my passport, wallet, and journal. I realized how little I cared even about the few possessions I had but, oh, did I worry about that missing passport, credit cards and my writings. They were later found, but this underscored my minimalist mantra.

(2) I missed nothing during my three weeks abroad. Not even my bed or other creature comforts. How can you miss stuff when you have the gift of experiences halfway across the world? When you let yourself truly be present in a moment, there is no wanting of something else.

(3) Travelers tend to pick up hotel toiletries and buy souvenirs for their friends and themselves. Some even need an extra bag to transport these items home. I can understand the impulse given the unique artwork and other goods I saw and appreciated. But I decided not to make any  such purchases, except for some light weight clothing that was much needed in that tropical climate and an extra book to read. The mindset to live with less can't take a vacation.

(4) Waste management is a significant global environmental issue. This was magnified on the small Gili Islands, surrounded by coral reefs. They have too much trash with limited options for disposal, in part because of their remote location and their recent and rapid growth in tourism. It's the problem of single use items being purchased and discarded (plastic water bottles, plastic bags, wrappers from processed foods, etc.) and an inefficient waste management system. In the U.S., we have similar waste issues but they tend to be "out of sight, out of mind." To see these beautiful places being threatened by this very modern problem emphasizes the need for us to rethink how to handle waste and to take more responsibility for the waste we create. (For a primer on zero waste, click here).

(5) All the money I save by not purchasing stuff and not having wasteful spending habits allows for more dollars to spend on travel. This is how less equals more.

 

 

 

My March Madness, Part 2

In my last post, My March Madness, Part 1, I recounted how I approached my most recent paring down of stuff, post-post move. It was a reminder that with changing day-to-day needs, our material goods should be re-evaluated.

As such, these are some of the conversations I had with myself:

  • I don't need a full hamper anymore. Just a laundry bag to hang on the back of my closet door will do. This will make going down to the laundry room easier.
  • This set of four Edward Tufte books that used to sit in my office are beautiful. But I no longer have an office so I'm going to take a deeper skim of them and then donate.
  • These old high school newspapers that include articles I wrote are a fun moment to revisit this last time. But now I'm going to cut out my articles and recycle the rest.
  • I love composting but I no longer have a backyard with a compost pile. Plus, if I decided to compost again and bring it to the farmer's market, I'd need a compost pail that can be stored in the freezer.
  • I've had this sewing box for 20 years. It's burgeoning with buttons and fabric. How did this happen? I'll just keep a few buttons, some thread, and needles that I will most likely use. I'll store these items in a small bag in my utility/tool box.
  • Hmmm ... I don't need all of these glasses and mugs. I'll donate the ones I am least likely to use.
  • This full length mirror is actually warped in the middle. How did I not realize this before?
  • Let me do my usual paring down of clothing and books to be sure I only have what I need and use most. 

I also went from three memory boxes to two. Memory boxes are where I keep most of my writings from my youth (when I need a laugh), recently completed journals, and notes/cards people have written me. Only a few pieces of physical memorabilia are kept here as I believe these should be worn or displayed (not hidden in a box).

Have there been changes in your life recently, large or small, that may result in a survey of what you have and what you need? 

My March Madness, Part 1

Through my On Memories post, I tried to convey the nature of memories intertwining with the tangible; the way the past can feel like brick and cement. This type of letting go is something we all face, whether we are moving or simply paring down.

I had some letting go to do before moving into my apartment, though I wasn’t sure of precisely what I’d need upon arrival. A few days after my move, I saw that there were some items I had incorrectly kept, so they left quickly.

Since then, I’ve just been living, seeing that I fit into a studio apartment with room to spare. There is an important lesson here: just because you have enough room for your belongings, or even extra room, that is far from a reason to keep them or bring new items in. It’s the “well, it’s not hurting anyone mentality” that tricks us. It distracts us from the bigger issue of stuff being the problem, not the space in which we keep the stuff. This is the difference between being organized and living a truly simple and purposeful life. 

Since my move, I've been taking mental notes on what I use and how I use them. I've also considered what neatly packaged items need to be sorted through in finer detail (ex. memory boxes, tool boxes). Because I’ve never had a lot of “stuff,” and I’m quite aggressive about not letting new items in, it wasn't until my move that I saw that I hadn’t fully lived up to my ideals. 

In my version of March Madness, I made this additional effort to downsize. As I sit here writing, I still wonder if it was enough. But I use my radar of purpose, meaning, efficiency and utility when I look all around and say that this is enough for my current life’s interests and needs.

In part two, I will address the objects that got the boot. 

On the power of habits

I recently completed the book, The Power of Habit, masterfully conceived by Charles Duhigg. It clearly outlines how habits rule our lives, and how to change them. I often consider how the transition to a minimalist lifestyle is simply a transition of habits; replacing one trigger with a new routine to achieve a similar resulting sensation.

For example, I don't purchase plastic sandwich bags. Instead, when I "need" a sandwich bag, I grab a reusable sandwich bag or container. To establish this new habit, I had to procure a few new items, but now that I'm set up, it's easy.

Some habits are harder to undo. I used to like buying magazines. Not often, but typically at airports or grocery stores. Now when I see a magazine to which my brain exclaims "I want to buy you!," I find other ways to give myself a little boost, to replace the satisfaction I used to get from making the purchase. It might be to remind myself that I'm saving $5, or that I've done a great job of not once buying a magazine in the past three years. I always feel better walking past the magazines than I did when I used to purchase them. And by the time I'm on to my next activity, I've already forgotten about it.

Anything you fear will be too hard to change is merely a habit to recreate. It can be a fun challenge and one that I highly recommend starting today. Pick one aspect of your daily or weekly routine that you can change for the more sustainable alternative. Give yourself a couple months to fully integrate it into your life. Perhaps start with something simple and after you've changed your first habit, move onto something a bit more difficult.