Every morning, I wake up to a home with nothing out of place. I’ve never been a Neatness Nazi and I still am not, but I’ve set things up so that my place just doesn’t get messy.
Every object in my house has a home of its own now. A little over a month ago, I vowed to eliminate homelessness from my home. My reasoning was that if I can’t be bothered to give my possessions a proper place to sleep at night, then I own far too much. I don’t want to own anything I don’t use or don’t appreciate. I don’t want stuff any more, only things.
“A place for everything, and everything in its place” is an ancient platitude that we’re all familiar with, but don’t think I have never been in the home of someone truly living it. I suppose in ancient times most people only owned a few dozen possessions so it wasn’t so hard.
But in our culture it’s perfectly normal for one person to own thousands of objects, far more than they could ever remember they own, let alone make use of or keep organized.
I insisted on finding out what it’s like to live this dream. In thirty days my lot has gone from chronically disorganized to nearly immaculate, by making one simple but drastic change:
I won’t own anything I can’t give a home to.
After a lot of tossing, selling and donating, everything I own now has a place where it is properly, officially away. A place where:
- I always know where it is
- I don’t have to move a bunch of crap to get to it
- It doesn’t look ugly or get in the way
- I can put it away in less than ten seconds
At the end of the day I take five minutes and put everything that’s still lying out where it belongs. There’s usually about ten or twelve items that aren’t already in bed, and the apartment quickly becomes hotel-room tidy again.
I used to live in perpetual untidiness. It wasn’t disgusting, but it wouldn’t be odd to find, say, notes and receipts on my kitchen table, a stack of library books on my coffee table, a jacket draped on a dining chair, and a hot sauce bottle stranded on my mantel — and that’s when it’s “clean.”
There was never a time when it looked good, except the hour immediately following the five-hour cleanup I would do every other Saturday when it got too bad to take.
And how could it look good? Since many things had no proper home, there was no “base” arrangement where things were exactly where they were supposed to be. I could hide messes, but the simple fact was that I had more things than I could care for. Most people do.
I had to reduce my possessions quite dramatically to get to be able to adequately house everything I chose to keep, but I still have quite a bit. Only once or twice have I wanted to use something that I’d gotten rid of, and it never was a big deal. There is an indescribable weight on your conscience that is released when you give something up. Every item you get rid of frees you, it really does.
I will never go back. There is just zero advantage to keeping more stuff than you can properly care for, even though it’s the normal thing to do. And it’s easy to maintain. I won’t buy anything I’m not prepared to give a home to. For once I am committed to really owning everything I have.
11 unexpected benefits of owning within my means
1) Cleaning the house takes five minutes. Five minutes to put everything away. About one minute a room at the end of the day. I actually set an alarm to do this every night at 9:20. I vacuum whenever it needs it, which is also a snap because there’s no crap on the floor. Once a week I clean everything including the bathroom and my apartment’s two floors. It takes about 20 minutes. Not even enough time to get through one Beatles album.
2) My mind is much clearer at home. This is an unbelievable difference. I suspected an organized home would make me feel better but I had no idea how enormous the difference would be. It’s easier to do my work, easier to write, easier to cook, easier to go to bed, easier to get up. There is just so little resistance in my mind about anything because I’m not constantly being accosted by thoughts that disordered possessions trigger: about the receipts on my table, the broken thing I’m not sure if I’m going to fix, the book that belongs to so-and-so, the notes I wrote about that thing that’s important (but probably will never be acted on), the PDF I printed out that it looks like I won’t read after all because it looks like the first few pages are missing… It had become normal for there to be so much unsettled crap in my mind because there was so much unsettled crap in my house. This effect is altogether separate than the fact that it’s just more pleasing on the psyche to see cleanliness than mess, though that’s nice too.
3) I’m not embarrassed to have people over. I don’t have to remember if there are dishes in the sink before I have someone in. In fact, I pretty much avoided having company entirely before. Now that’s wide open to me, and I’m not only unashamed, but proud.
4) Time seems to have grown out of nowhere. Aside from the tenfold reduction in cleaning time, there is no time wasted looking for things, nothing needs to be finally “tackled”, and I don’t get distracted from working by magazines, cereal boxes and other convenient procrastination devices.
5) Cooking is a much more attractive proposition. I can’t believe how much a difference it makes just to put the damn toaster in the cupboard when I’m done with it. Making toast is something that’s occurring for about 0.05% of the day, yet I let the toaster and all its ugly crumbs take up my precious counterspace (and headspace) for 100% of the day! Why? Because I was in the habit of leaving stuff where it ended up. It takes 3 seconds to put it away and another 3 to take it out. I was ignoring some pretty simple math. All of my utensils have their own dedicated place to lie in their respective drawers. Unloading the dishwasher is never an unattractive task anymore because I love the feeling of everything being away, and there is nothing that needs to be shuffled around.
6) I can’t distract myself from proceeding with the rest of my life anymore. This was a weird side-effect I didn’t expect, but it’s been very revealing. One thing I’ve often done (and I know it’s not uncommon) is to avoid an intimidating to-do task by cleaning up first. I reason that if I clean up I’ll be in a better state of mind to tackle whatever it is. This is usually true, it does help clear the mind, but often it’s just an obstacle we put in our own way to avoid working on the important stuff. But now I’m done the cleanup in five minutes, and there’s nothing left to do but face the next thing in life. Clutter serves as an easy distraction — it’s easy to lose track of your responsibilities amidst a lot of stuff and sometimes that’s exactly what we want to happen.
7) All my affairs are much more organized, by association. It’s not just the physical space of my life that is suddenly crystal clear, but also the abstract space of my plans and to-do lists. If I write a reminder note to do something, I know I won’t lose it. It’ll end up in my inbox and it will get acted upon. I don’t have to fear that I’m losing track of critical things. There are no important tasks going silently un-done, and for once I know that.
8 ) I can have good-quality versions of almost everything. I’m still gradually replacing anything that is cheap, plastic and ugly, but there’s a finite number of things I have to do this with. I am much more grateful for what I do have, because I only own things that would make a difference to me if I lost or broke them. There’s a profound joy to be had in the simple act of taking an object from its place, using it for what it was meant to be used, and putting it away. It is such a different experience than rifling through a drawer for that thing you think you still might have, finally finding it, using it and then tossing it back in a pile of mostly unused stuff.
9) My self-esteem made an unexpected jump. It’s hard to quite explain why this is, but I find I’m carrying myself differently even when I’m not at home. There is a certain mindset that arises from knowing you are “master of your domain” at home. I have removed a huge measure of chaos from my life, and now I feel much more confident in every interaction because I know I don’t let my own home overtake me. When you can’t even get a handle on the one corner of the world in which you have complete control, how can you expect to bring real steadiness and confidence into the outside world?
10) I am calmer. If you can imagine the difference between walking into a packrat’s garage sale, and walking into an orderly space, that’s a difference I feel every moment I’m home. I never realized the agitating effect that homeless stuff has on the mind. There’s this mild but always-present feeling that something is unresolved, because we only leave things lying around under the pretense that they’re only going to be there temporarily. But the resolution never comes, because the homeless objects have no place to go. I don’t want to beat this point to death but it’s unbelievable what a huge mental weight is released when there are no more “fish out of water” like this.
11) I love waking up, even on weekdays. My whole morning experience is different. Now that I wake up to a clean house, I want to spend more time in it before I go to work. I’ve shifted my bedtime forwards about half an hour, and I wake up almost an hour earlier. I am able to meditate and stretch and take my time in the mornings now because I don’t have this feeling of being squished between a taxing home and a taxing job. My mood is so much better when I leave, so my workday starts off on a less-taxing foot, which means I’m not very reactive at work, which helps the workday go much more smoothly. I do a better job, I have better interactions with people, I come home to a calming environment. Best domino effect ever.
It doesn’t need to be airtight
When I began I had a fear that I would get everything to an immaculate state, then watch as it all deteriorated into exactly what it was before: an hideous orgy of homeless stuff.
It’s not going to be an airtight system. And that’s good, because then everything would explode if you slipped somewhere. There are just a few things that you have to stay aware of to sustain it, and that’s really easy when you’re living in such a high-clarity environment.
Not all objects in a person’s home are really possessions. For example, if there’s a form you need to fill out and send somewhere, you probably won’t have designated a spot for it before it gets there. Same with gifts, things people return to you that you forgot you owned, and things that are waiting to be sold or donated. So you need to have some containers set up for certain categories of “thing”:
- A nice-looking inbox, for stuff that needs decisionmaking or some other kind of action
- A nice-looking box for things that you need to return to other people
- A nice-looking box for “things that need a home.” This is your failsafe. Put gifts, new purchases, and objects that somehow remained stray in here.
- A designated area for things that are waiting to be sold or donated. Best if these can be boxed too, so that they don’t spill into other areas.
Those buckets should catch most of the leaks.
Most of the benefits I’ve described do require a standing commitment: take that ten minutes to make sure everything is in its place at night. It’s not difficult to do this at all, but obviously there’s no point to making a place for everything if those things never get to go home. As a single person in an apartment, usually it’s about a three-minute job. If you live in a big house and you have kids, it might be fifteen, but it’s probably going to be the best fifteen minutes you spend all day. It’s such an easy job because every item should only take about ten seconds to put away. So even if eighty (!) items are left out, that’s only about thirteen minutes.
But it’s unlikely you’ll be waiting until the end of the day to put everything away. A left-out object is so conspicuous in an orderly home that you’ll probably put it away as soon as you realize it’s no longer in use. And there’s so little resistance to doing that because it requires no decisionmaking — you know exactly what to do with it, and the payoff is immediate.
It’s not hard to keep it tidy, because you just won’t tolerate things lying on the floor. There’s no longer any reason to.
We’ve been trained to not do this
One reality I can’t help but notice now is that it is extremely unusual in our society to not have far too many possessions to keep track of.
We let things pile up to absurd levels it because it’s normal, and it’s normal because we’ve been trained to buy things without being aware of the costs. The financial hit we take from a purchase is a one-time cost that dissipates quickly. Indiscriminate purchasing and owning costs us much more than money, and these costs are ongoing liabilities to our peace of mind, the order in our homes, gratitude for what we do have, the quality level of what we do own, and a sense of control over our own “lot” in life. Every possession imposes these costs, but we’re so used to excessive possessions that we don’t realize they’re so taxing to own.
Very-high-level marketers have successfully made the act of acquiring things into a highly unconscious habit for nearly all of us. Just as overeating has become normal, along with its consequences on our health, so has over-owning, along with its consequences on the states of our minds and our lives. Many people will never know what they’ve been missing, having been born into a disorderly household, and probably on their way to dying in one.
This all may sound a bit dramatic, but it’s hard to overstate the immediate difference this has made in my life. It was a lot of work, and I really had to get quite close to a 100% absence of homeless possessions before many of the benefits kicked in. But it could be the best time I ever spent, and it’s only begun to pay its dividends. If you’re looking for a “sure thing” to invest in, here it is.
Photo by See Ming Lee