Category Archives: My Story

When Life Maintenance Collides with Life Events

I recently worked with a client on her home office. She explained that the space used to work quite well for her – she could pay her bills, invoice clients, do her writing, etc. It was perfect. Then she got caught up in a legal dispute, needed surgery that limited her mobility for months, and had an existing medical condition worsen. On top of all that, her cat died. For about a year it was just one thing after another. Pretty soon her office wasn’t perfect anymore. Things stacked up. Paperwork wasn’t filed. The desk got covered in junk. She found herself avoiding the room completely. By the time I got there, she didn’t even want to go into the office if she didn’t have to.

It happens to everyone at some point. An interruption or major life event happens, and slowly the parts of our lives that used to work stop working. The problem is that once things have gone off the rails, we can’t bring them back using our old habits. Asking your maintenance systems to fix a year of built-up stress is like asking a handyman to build you a new house. The recurring processes and habits of daily life, such as dealing with the mail quickly or getting the desk clean at least once a week, only work so long as they keep moving. Interrupt those systems and habits for long enough and the machine gets clogged: the stack of bills is so tall you just avoid it, the package of paper towels begins to live on the floor. Your old systems can’t run anymore, and the clog only gets worse.

The life events that cause these interruptions don’t have to be huge. I just experienced one myself in these last few months. I had been blogging consistently during the summer, and I’d settled into a good routine of posting every two weeks. I had set up my writing program with ideas for upcoming topics, I’d color-coded it to ensure there was variety, and I had a procedure for doing final edits, posting, and promoting. But November was coming, and with it came National Novel Writing Month. I knew I wouldn’t want to be working on blog posts while also trying to write 1667 words every day for NaNo, so I tried to do a little extra work in October to prep the November posts. But this was an interruption in the system. It didn’t fit with the workflow I’d established, and I was only able to get one November post written and scheduled ahead of time. I decided one post in November would be fine, and went ahead with NaNo as planned.

But once November was over, I was burnt out on writing. That burnout kept me from jumping back into my old blogging habits. The system was interrupted, the old maintenance habits were clogged, and suddenly it was January 1st and I hadn’t posted anything in over a month. I was disappointed and embarrassed.

It was around this time that my client, fed up with her unusable office space, called me. She couldn’t say how or why it had gotten so bad, just that it was a big enough source of stress in her life that she needed help. And it wasn’t until I articulated the cause of the problem to her that I was able to see it so clearly in myself. What she needed was an outside professional to help her clear out the physical spaces that were getting in the way of her routines and habits. What I needed was to be reminded that I am susceptible to the same traps my clients are, and that I don’t need to be ashamed of that anymore than they do.

The skills and habits of maintenance won’t pull you out of the hole, just like they couldn’t pull me or my client out. We both needed something a bit bigger, a bit more drastic to happen in order to reset the system and get the machine working again. If there’s an area in your life that used to work but isn’t anymore, it might be because some big event got in the way. You need to match a big event with a big response. I can’t tell you for certain what that response is, but I can tell you how it starts: Acknowledge that being interrupted is not the same as failing. You can’t control what interrupts you, only what you do to get back on track.

The #WearItAllChallenge – Fall Edition

Earlier this year my friends and I created the #WearItAllChallenge, beginning with #WearItAllJuly. The goal of the challenge is to wear a completely different outfit every day for an entire month. I love this challenge because everyone learns something different from it, and what they learn is often surprising. So we’re doing it again for the month of October!

Here are the basic rules:

Rule #1: Wear a completely different outfit every day for a month.
Rule #2: After you wear a piece of clothing, set it aside. You can’t wear it again the rest of the month.
Rule #3: If you literally don’t own enough of something to accomplish this (for example, you only own 15 pairs of shoes), you can loop back through them after you’ve worn them all once (it’s up to you whether you want to wear through them all again before repeating).
Rule #4: You choose what categories are included/excluded from your challenge, such as hiking gear and ballgowns. You can choose to not care about pajamas, workout clothes, underwear, etc. It’s up to you. The important thing is that once you decide your rules you stick with them.
Rule #5: Your wardrobe is “locked in” at the start of the month. Anything new you buy after that gets put in the used pile and has to wait until next month!
Rule #6: There may be times where wearing something twice is unavoidable, such as with work uniforms or travel clothes. Don’t worry about it. Count the days you want to count.

Here are some of the most common objections I hear and what’d I’d say in response:

“I can’t imagine wearing my snow boots to the grocery store!”

Me neither, that sounds like a terrible idea. That’s why you’re allowed to exclude whatever specialty clothing you want. I personally drew the line at “anything I would have never worn to any job.” It meant I had to include most of my closet, but excluded my fancier dresses, my hiking gear, etc.

“No one would notice if I did this challenge because I’m so boring with my clothes.”

You’re probably right. Our own standards for what’s “weird” aren’t as universal as we think. Most people in my sphere only noticed at the very end of the month, and even then it may have just been because they saw my updates on Instagram. The point is not to get noticed or get attention, the point is to come face-to-face with your own wardrobe.

“I would but I’m traveling/have a work conference/etc.”

Take some cheat days, I know I did. I had a 6-day trip in July where traveling light and re-wearing clothes was a must, so I just didn’t count those days. I still learned a lot during the month and wore through most of my closet.

“I already have to do laundry every week just to have enough clean clothes.”

Do you have to do laundry in order to have enough clean clothes, or just to have enough clean clothes of one category? It’s pretty common to have more shirts than pants, for example, which means you could easily wear through all of your pants all the time, but be skipping over a lot of your shirts. That’s why it’s worth proactively trying!

“I don’t own enough clothes to pull this off!”

I didn’t either. I wore through my entire shoe and bra collections twice. That’s why we made the rule that you can cycle back through any one category once you’ve exhausted it. Remember that people are really bad at self-assessing the volume of stuff they own, so even if you’re positive you don’t own that much, I invite you to go do a physical count. Pull everything out of your drawers and tell me your totals in the comments to prove that you won’t last a week, and I’ll give you a free pass to ignore the whole thing.

“But seriously, I don’t own enough clothes to make it a whole month.”

Could you make it three weeks? Two? I dare you to go as long as possible. I’m not joking when I say you probably have more clothes than you realize, or that I think you can learn something about yourself even if you already have a pretty minimalist wardrobe. A big part of why I did this was because I already felt like I didn’t own much.

“This seems too difficult/complicated.”

You can make the challenge as big or as small as you want, which means it can be as simple or complex as you want. The first time I chose to exclude or be really loose with the rules on pajamas, bras, purses, jackets, and workout clothes. One woman just did the challenge with her lipstick collection and wore a different shade every day. A friend said he wants to do it with just his t-shirts. This challenge is whatever you want it to be.

In summary, whatever your objection is, my response is, “Just give it a try and go for as long as you can.” After all, the worst thing that can happen is you have to end early, and go back to wearing clothes the way you would have worn them anyway.

Happy #WearItAllOctober!

On Journals & Journaling

A few years ago I started to acknowledge that I had a lot of unfinished journals and notebooks. Specifically, I had a number of blank journals, a collection of nearly-full ones, several half-full ones, and too many with only a few pages of ambitious thoughts. I used to carry a journal with me everywhere in high school. I would write down all sorts of things. The journals weren’t for long-form writing as much as collecting. I filled them with quotes and fun combinations of words, ideas for things that ought to exist, and sometimes just the lyrics to a song that was stuck in my head. But I rarely took pen to paper and wrote full sentences like I do on the computer.

The one occasion I specifically remember writing something in full was probably the summer before my senior year. I was in the middle of my first real relationship and I wrote several pages on the general topic of love. I know how dreadful that sounds. I myself have no interest in reading the ramblings of a 17-year-old talking about her ill-conceived notions of love based on her first boyfriend. But I distinctly remember reading over the pages later and thinking it was some of my best work.

Less than two months later, my car was broken into and the journal stolen along with everything else. I was crushed. This was my first real experience as a victim of crime. My first real understanding of the difference between material value and personal value. The thieves couldn’t have gotten much money out of 30 used CDs, but it represented my entire music library. They might have gotten some money from my graphing calculator and maybe even the backpack itself, but they certainly didn’t need the entire Key Club roster that I had spent weeks compiling. And as for my journal, the one that was only a few pages away from being complete and therefore retired to a safe shelf at home, the one with the six-page musing on love that I was exceptionally proud of, that item they most definitely threw in the trash.

I think part of the reason I kept all of those blank and half-filled journals is that I was hoping one day to get that stolen one back. Not literally, of course, I will never get that specific object back. I’ve already grieved for it. But maybe I was waiting for the day when I’d take up journal writing again, and potentially pen a few pages on love. And unlike the lost pages that were most certainly not as good in real life as they become each time I remember them, these pages would be truly fantastic. The whole journal would be fantastic. I would be fantastic.

My unused and half used journals were about potential, and it’s hard to give up on potential. But it was time to acknowledge that I wasn’t that person anymore. I didn’t engage in my creativity that way anymore. At the same time, it felt wasteful to toss perfectly good journals with perfectly good blank pages. So I came up with a different plan.

A few years ago I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which teaches the practice of Morning Pages. Morning Pages are three pages of handwritten journaling you do first thing in the morning. There are no rules, no expectations, and no stopping. You just try to keep the pen going until you’ve filled your pages. I enjoyed the practice and decided it would be a good way to use up my loose journals. I started with the smaller ones since that meant shorter pages, but gradually worked my way up to the full sized spiral notebooks. For the ones that were half-filled I just started where I’d left off. Some only had a dozen or so pages left, and I filled those up too. (As a side note, it was a great way to use up old pens as well.)

When I came to the end of a notebook I set it aside and started on the next. After a few months had passed, I went back to read what I’d written. Enough time had passed that I felt like I could evaluate the writing honestly, but not so much time that I felt nostalgic. If I found something good, I typed it up on my computer in a document dedicated to highlights from my Morning Pages. And then I ripped out those pages and recycled them.

For the pages that I’d filled years before, I read through them looking for anything worth keeping. Much of it was old notes from my college classes and not really worth anything to me anymore. Occasionally I would find something I wanted to keep. I’d rip out the page, scan it, and recycle the original. Very rarely I would find something I wanted to keep in its original paper form, in which case I’d rip it out and add it to my file of paper mementos.

In case you didn’t notice the theme, I ripped apart every single journal once it was full. There’s something ceremonial about destroying a used journal. I often recommend to clients that if they are having trouble with the physical act of tossing a used journal, they should consider burning it or burying it, which are common ways to properly dispose of sacred texts. I kept the full journals from high school and a couple half-full ones from college that have sentimental value. But all the spiral notebooks are gone, as are the cheaper, less attractive journals that I never got around to finishing. What’s left on my shelf now are blank journals that slowly disappear as I fill them up with morning pages and then destroy them a few months later. I’m really looking forward to the day when I have to go out and buy a journal again.

I know that the thought of ripping apart old journals or keeping scans instead of originals is frightening to some people. I get it. Like I said, I kept some of the older ones that were completed in full. But the only thing those half-finished journals did was make me feel guilty for not being the person I was in high school. And that’s silly. Because I’m glad I’m not the person I was in high school. I’m happy that I’ve grown and developed over the years, that I express my creativity differently and use my possessions more wisely. I’m glad that I stopped being the person that feels she needs to start a new journal every few months just because it’s been “too long” since she wrote in the old one. And I’m glad to have that room on my shelf back, free from guilt and ready for new books, new journals, and new ideas.

Your Mission

Take a look at the half-used journals on your shelf. What’s in them? Don’t just assume you know – start thumbing through them. What made you stop writing? What will make you start again? Sorting through journals can take a long time, because you’re likely to want to read through every page and get lost in the memories. If you have a lot of journals to go through, you may be better off setting aside some time every day or every week to thumb through a few. I can’t give you a single, prescriptive answer on what to do next. Each journal is different, as is each writer. All I ask is that you pay more attention to the Future You than the Past You. Take forward into your new life the things that will make you happy. Leave the guilt behind.

Or better yet, burn it.

The #WearItAllJuly Challenge

On July 1st I posted a picture of myself on Instagram with the following description:

Can you wear entirely different clothes every day for a month? My friends and I are challenging each other to do this, not only to put on things we don’t wear that often, but to learn what we really use (and what we could let go of). Plus, it’s a fun game! Think you can do it?

A good look from co-creator @gavinverhey

Rule #1: Wear a completely different outfit every day in July.
Rule #2: After you wear a piece of clothing, set it aside. You can’t wear it again the rest of the month.
Rule #3: If you literally don’t own enough of something to accomplish this (for example, you only own 15 pairs of shoes total), you can loop back through them after you’ve worn them all once.
Rule #4: You choose what categories are excluded based on your own wardrobe and what you’re hoping to get out of the challenge. You can choose to exclude specialty clothes from your rotation, such as hiking gear and ballgowns. You can choose to not care about pajamas or underwear. It’s up to you. The important thing is that once you decide your rules you stick with them.
Rule #5: Your wardrobe is “locked in” at the start of the month. Anything new you buy after that gets put in the used pile and has to wait until August!
Rule #6: There may be times where wearing something twice is unavoidable, such as with work uniforms. Don’t sweat it – you’re doing your best, and that’s what counts!

Participants are encouraged to share some of their outfit creations with the hashtag #wearitalljuly

My friends and I all started the challenge with different goals in mind. For me, I liked it because it was the opposite of how I normally approach this kind of thing. I’m usually the one doing challenges that ask you to pair down and minimize your options, like with Project 333. And I pack extremely light, essentially forcing myself into a capsule wardrobe every time I travel. This challenge was completely different. Rather than limiting your options, it forces you to take all of them. None of us knew what to expect, and I don’t think any of us could have predicted the learnings we got from it. Here are a few of mine:

We were joined by others on Instagram, including user @jenn.rych

Clothes are meant to be worn – I know that when you work from home you should always get dressed, even if you aren’t going to leave the house. But I had been breaking that rule constantly. I realized it was because I felt like I was “wasting” my clothes by wearing them when no one would see me. It’s true that every time you wear and wash an item you are wearing it down a tiny bit, but I realized that I was still doing that to my pajamas by wearing them all the time. I have to wear something, and getting dressed really does make you more motivated to get work done.

Embrace discomfort – I’d been prioritizing comfort so much, I forgot what is and isn’t comfortable and to what degree. When I started to run low on shoes and pants I had to embrace Anti-Casual-Monday and wear a dress and heels to my writing group. And you know what? Heels aren’t that bad. Dresses aren’t that bad. Sure they aren’t the most comfortable things in the world, but if it’s only going to be a few hours of mostly sitting, who cares? And if you’re working from home, flowy skirts and dresses are a great option to stay cool on a hot day.

Co-creator @kristinahorner showing off some of the diverse looks we had to come up with over the month

Every day is a day worth dressing up for – I have this beautiful pink and white skirt that I love and always get complimented on, but I rarely wear it because it never feels like a fancy enough occasion to wear it. But this month I found myself wearing skirts to casual get-togethers and dress slacks to coffee shops.

Your first choice isn’t always the best choice – The first time I thought seriously about cheating was when I realized I was supposed to go to a Mariner’s game and I didn’t have any jeans left. I couldn’t fathom wearing anything but jeans to watch baseball. To me, sports = cold. But the weather report for the evening said it would stay warm past the 9th inning, and I had one more pair of shorts left in the drawer. This turned out to be perfect, as I was too hot for most of the bus ride down to the game, and perfectly comfortable the whole time I was in the stadium. I didn’t even have to zip up the hoodie I was wearing and never bothered with the additional long-sleeve shirt I brought to layer. By forcing myself to make the “wrong” choice, I was way better off.

Some of my outfits from the later half of the month

Hoodies4Life – Speaking of hooded sweatshirts, have y’all worn one of them lately? Because apparently I stopped wearing them ten years ago and I forgot how incredibly comfortable they are. No wonder I used to live in them.

It’ll be fine even when it doesn’t work – The second time I considered cheating was when I was invited to another baseball game. I had absolutely no pants or shorts left, and as much as it pained me to wear a skirt to a baseball game, I did it. Honestly I did it mostly because the people I was going with all knew I was doing this challenge and would have totally called me out on cheating. They of course all noticed and commented that I was pretty fancy for baseball in my long black skirt, but it was fine. I was maybe a little cold during the last few innings, but it wasn’t bad. And honestly if they hadn’t all known about the challenge, I wonder how many of them would have even noticed.

Nobody notices and nobody cares – Over the course of this month my friends and I put together what we thought were some pretty disjointed and weird outfits. But when the pictures showed up on Instagram everyone looked…fine. Even the very weird and dressy stuff at the end of the month probably would have escaped everyone’s notice if we hadn’t been watching for it. I think we all get these ideas in our heads about what works and what doesn’t, and they are way more restrictive than they need to be.

A week’s worth of outfits from participant @adarosefaery

No seriously, your first choice isn’t always the best choice – The final time I considered cheating was when I had to see a client on the very last day of the month. I normally wouldn’t dream of wearing a skirt when working with a client because I never know if I’m going to be reaching around awkward piles, moving furniture, crawling around on the floor, etc. But I’d been wearing a pretty sensible skirt and tank top combination all day, and it was still very hot outside when the time came to start our evening session. This was a client I’d seen many times before, and while you never know where the day will take you, I knew his house never seemed to involve a lot of manual labor. So I wore the skirt, and it was the best decision. I could still easily do my work, and I never got too hot despite it being well into the 80s while I was there. I never would have chosen the skirt, but it was the better choice.

All the photos included in the post are pulled from people who participated on Instagram. Check out the hashtag #WearItAllJuly to see more! And who knows, there may be a #WearItAllOctober in my future…

Ticket Stubs

For most of my life I have been obsessed with holding on to things, chronically things, tracking things. I kept every Christmas card I ever received, even the ones from my bank. I kept all my old school papers and every program from every play I saw. Most importantly, I kept all my tickets stubs.

I’m not just talking about plays either. I kept movie stubs, I kept those little raffle tabs they give you at small events. Even when they didn’t have any identifying markers on them, I kept them. For 28 years I kept them.

It never occurred to me that I was engaging in a kind of isolated hoarding, because I still hadn’t exceeded the capacity of the jar I kept ticket stubs in. It turns out ticket stubs are small, and you can fit a LOT of them in a jar. But just because I can fit them all doesn’t mean I need to keep them all. And the practice of keeping every stub meant I could never just toss a used stub in the recycle: I had to go open up the jar and stuff it inside. It was extra work every time, and work I didn’t have to do if I stopped keeping every stub. So I stopped keeping, and I started sorting.

Some stubs brought up memories. I found the ticket from the first time I saw Anything Goes at The 5th Avenue Theatre in 2000, and from when I saw it there again in 2013. In 2013 my 27-year-old self noticed something that my 15-year-old self didn’t: that play gets weirdly racist at the end. I’m not sure why they keep doing it, except for maybe a burning urge to sing “It’s De-Lovely.” I threw out both stubs.

There were so many stubs from the UW School of Drama. I was an undergrad there, and the School of Drama productions were mostly performed by the grad students. So I was never in them and only casually knew the actors. But I still remember the show names perfectly after seeing them plastered on every wall and hearing my undergrad friends talk about running tech or getting supporting roles. She Stoops to Conquer, Big Love, Twelfth Night, The Quick Change Room. For all of these I have only a sliver of memory. Perhaps they were good productions, but I’ve seen so many good productions. I can’t hold on to them all. A few I will keep, because something about them really rings in my ears, even if I don’t remember all the details. I remember liking The Bacchae, though I also remember a lot of people hating it. I loved Arcadia, though that was probably Tom Stoppard’s fault. I know that Antigone was beautiful. The memories stay, but the stubs can go.

I had movie tickets that were ripped in half so you could only see the date and time, not the name of the film. Those got tossed. But that time I got to see the Dalai Lama speak? I’ll keep that.

I kept Young Frankenstein, which I adored. I tossed Spamalot, which was funny but not nearly so memorable.

I am positive I never actually saw Exorcist: The Beginning. Some vague memory says I was once handed the wrong ticket to a movie, but didn’t notice until afterwards. I know that whatever movie I saw, I saw it at around 10:40PM on August 22, 2004. But beyond that? Who knows. Plenty of good movies came out in 2004, including many I know I saw, and several that might have been playing in theaters that day. It seems strange to keep a piece paper that holds such a phantom of a memory. In the trash it goes.

I tossed a lot of ticket stubs for Mariner’s games, but I kept the one from that day my boyfriend and I saw the only combined no-hitter in Mariner’s history. Though regular no-hitters get all the glory, combined no-hitters are actually more rare, since a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter is rarely removed from the game.

In terms of keeping a stub I should have tossed, the winner was a ticket for US Airways from Seattle to Las Vegas. It wasn’t even my ticket stub – the ticket was for my friend Chelsea from college. I messaged her asking if she knew why I might have her ticket stub. She said she thought she remembered me randomly finding it in a library book that she had apparently checked out before me. Perhaps that’s why I kept it. It must have felt like fate at the time.

These stubs, like all the memorabilia and mementos I save, have a common thread. It’s right there in the name: memory. These are the physical objects that are supposed to trigger those memories in me. But for years they just stayed in a jar. They didn’t trigger anything, they merely took up space. There was a certain pride in being able to say I’d kept every stub I ever received, but to what end? What good are mementos if those memories never leave the jar?

Ultimately the deciding factor on what stayed and what got tossed was how immediately the paper conjured up a memory. Anything that took too much work wasn’t worth keeping around, including one movie stub so wrinkled and faded that I could no longer make out a single word on the stub. Perhaps that memory would have been great, but it’s gone now. All the stub is (all the stubs ever were) is me clawing after something that once was, based on the assumption that the worth of the past is sacred and unchanging. But I think some memories are meant to dissolve, just like the paper they’re printed on.

Doctor Heal Thyself

When talking to friends and family about what kind of problems I help people with, I’ll often bring up examples from my own life. I’ve struggled with all the usual issues: buying useless things, accepting dumb junk just because it’s free, stuffing my drawers so full they won’t shut, keeping sentimental items I don’t really need, keeping non-sentimental items out of guilt, etc. People often laugh at first, surprised that someone who declutters professionally could possibly have a problem with clutter. But that’s exactly the type of person you need.

I didn’t come to this decluttering ability naturally. Like any child I loved to hoard my treasured possessions. I responded to the targeted advertisements for toys like everyone else, I longed for the beautifully colored bath products in the drug store even though I didn’t end up using half of them. It’s a natural human tendency to desire things, and it’s encouraged in a modern capitalist society to constantly acquire new possessions.

The thing I did have that may have set me apart was a strong desire for order. So while I did keep every issue of Seventeen Magazine I ever received, I kept them all in perfect chronological order. I liked sorting my loose change into bank roll sleeves. I was the only one in the house with a strong desire to re-alphabetize the VHS collection.

It was sometime right after college that I started to see how my desire for order was at odds with my need to own things. I had to move apartments seven times in ten years, and each time I grew more and more frustrated with the sheer volume of stuff I had. I started to get rid of a few things and realized how much happier I was when there was less around. But it wasn’t easy. This wasn’t a bunch of junk – every object was there for a reason. I had to figure out why the things I swore I wanted to own were also making me miserable.

It was little by little, one step at a time. Actually using up my bath supplies, ending my $10 DVD habit, deciding that I didn’t need to keep every scrap of fabric that crossed my path, etc. I had to fight all those battles myself, usually by myself. Until one day I looked around and realized that not everyone had gone on that journey with me. Some people didn’t know how to fight those battles alone. They needed help, and they needed it from someone who understood what it was like.

I own much less now, but I still struggle with my own clutter. I’m still not sure about a few of those DVDs, a couple of those books. I still have an awful lot of fabric even if it’s way less than before. I still fight those battles, and I remember what it was like when I faced them the first time. I think that’s why I love helping people with this particular kind of problem. Once you’ve found something that makes you happier, that makes your whole life better, all you want to do is tell everyone you know how to do the same. And that happiness, I’ve found, doesn’t come from a set number of books or one fewer kitchen appliance. It’s not about which things stay and which things go. It’s about looking at your bookshelf and smiling. It’s about sitting down at your desk and actually feeling like you can do your work. It’s about owning an object more than it owns you.

That’s what I spent the first 30 years of my life learning, and what I hope to spend the next 30 years teaching to others.