Shooting down stressors

I was working on my stressor list this morning when I got sidetracked by wondering if I had ever blogged about said list. I was shocked to find that I hadn’t!

This list is the single most important tool I have for ridding my life of stress. I like my life  which is something I never would have dreamed I would say four years ago when I was still working at what had turned out to be the worst job of my life. My life is calm and quiet and (almost) stress free and pretty darn simple. I am happy much more often than I am unhappy. I owe most of that to this list.

STEP ONE: LIST

It goes like this: you sit down and write a list of everything that stresses you out. The big stuff that keeps you up at night (I hate my job!), the little things that make you cringe (Do I really have to keep that hideous vase aunt Mabel gave me?), and the vaporous, ubiquitous ones that you carry on yourself like cold sweat (These pimples make me so embarrassed!).

When I first drew up my list it was 2011. I had finally quit the job that was (perhaps literally) killing me (and seemed intent on killing my marriage, as well) but now I was working not one, but two part-time jobs that seemed like good ideas at the time but had both turned sour. Despite several months home alone I had barely put a dent in the horrific state of the house. I had two cars in the driveway, one of which I would never have the time or money to fix up and another which was on its last legs. I had just turned 30 but I had the same acne I had graduated high school with. I had finally managed to quit smoking, but I hadn’t shed a pound since I was preparing for our wedding in 2007, and I was still, according to the chart on my doctor’s wall, obese.

It was pretty anticlimactic to (finally) quit the world’s worst job, thinking all my troubles would be over, and discover that underneath my white-hot hatred for my bullying ex-employer was a whole heap of extraneous crap, which continued to steam and bubble and stink up my life.

STEP TWO: PLAN

Now write down options for dealing with each item, realistic or not. You could quit that job tomorrow. You could look for another one in your spare time. You could take a class to get a degree to get a better job. You could ask for a raise. You could transfer to another branch.

Some options are more do-able than others, some will have better results (but may be harder to accomplish), some will be cheap, some will be expensive. Research your options — Google your questions, talk to other people, read books — and decide on a course of action. Will you dip into savings to fund some classes at the local community college to get a certificate in wedding planning? Will you do it on the side until you are established or will you give your two weeks notice as soon as you have your certificate?

STEP THREE: BE PATIENT

This system works, but nothing gets fixed overnight. Check in with your list every time you’ve made some progress, no matter how small, and make a note of it.

Here’s an excerpt from my list:

PROBLEM: I feel guilty about the stuff I still have at Mom & Dad’s. They are not a storage facility and I am a grown-ass woman with my own damn house.
POSSIBLE RESOLUTION: As our place starts to clear out from the selling and donating, go get one item or box at a time and do the same thing with it. Either incorporate it, sell it, or donate it. Update (06/05/12): I’ve started picking the stuff up. I’ve carted off one Karl load and will take more over the course of the summer. Update October 2012: One load left in my old room and then I can start on the shop. Update August 2014: Everything is out of the shop, still one load left in my old closet.

The progress has been incremental, and not just because this item is a low priority. (It’s not that it’s not important to me — it wouldn’t be on the list if it weren’t important — but it is less important than, say, putting a roof on the house.) These things just take time. But every time I fill up the back of the station wagon and free up 96 cubic feet of space in my parent’s home I feel very good about myself. (As an added bonus I’ve also found some stuff I thought I’d never see again, like my real silk robe and the first book I wrote in the first grade. Also, I’ve found some stuff I can sell on eBay, like my My Little Ponies. But most of it has gone to the thrift store to make other people happy.)

Something else I do, or rather don’t do, is delete. Once I have completed a list point I use strikethrough formatting to indicate that it is complete and make a bold note about how I rid myself of this stressor. For instance:

PROBLEM: Acne.
POSSIBLE RESOLUTION(S): This one I think I might be able to control. I just have to be diligent, follow the good advice of the “Breaking out” book and Acne.org, and wait patiently for the treatments to take affect. Then I need to continue to be diligent to prevent further outbreaks
. I have been using 2.5% Benzoyl peroxide for months now and I am, for all practical purposes, acne free!

When you review your list you will (hopefully) see all these crossed out items and think, “I can do this! Look at all the crap I’ve already shoveled off my plate!”

This system is dirt simple and just takes up a few sheets of paper or a single small word processor file. But I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a million times more effective than my old problem solving strategy of lying on the living room floor and moaning. (Kidding. Sort of.) And by just making the list you feel empowered.

— Amanda

Always on hand

Like the mismatched screws?  They were left over from previous projects.

I use my ancient Corona pruners almost every day, regardless of whether there is any pruning to be done or not.  They snip herbs for dinner (even in the dead of winter, because I love me some fresh thyme) and flowers for the vase on the kitchen table.  Yes, I even use them to prune: fruit trees, ornamentals, the blackberries that are trying to colonize the back yard.  Yesterday, after I used them to cut back all the dead wood on my sage, oregano, and thyme, I also used them for the rather unorthodox purpose of chopping up a section of split garden hose so that it would fit neatly in to the garbage can.

In short, if these guys lived in the locked garden shed with the wonky doors that only open a foot at most I would go nuts or resort to gumming up my paper scissors with tulip sap.

I got tired of leaving them on top of the dryer by the back door because that’s also where I toss my chore coat and gloves and I keep getting the three intertwined in irritating (and sometimes painful) ways.  So when I was at the feed store today I invested in a $0.69 1″ conduit strap from the plumbing aisle.  I needed to bend it out a little to accommodate the handles of my pruners, but I was able to do it without pliers.  I screwed it up next to the can crusher, which the previous occupants mounted on a 1/4″ thick chunk of plywood.  (I suspect, given what I know about the previous assholes homeowners that the plywood was originally intended to mask a large hole, rather than as a mounting plate for the can crusher.)  I mounted it high like I did so that the pruners aren’t flush against the wall, which will make it easier to get my hands around them, particularly when I am wearing garden gloves.

— Amanda

My rules for decluttering and organizing

Bleh!  Lookit all that stuff!
Ahh, that’s better.
A cheap shelf packed with office supplies and gift wrap stuff.  Hmm.
Put a plain muslin curtain on it and it’s almost fit for Pottery Barn.

After years of shuffling crap around my house (and off to the thrift store) I have learned some things.  Mostly the hard way, but also from a few good books.  Here’s what I keep in mind when I’m working on getting my shit together:

  • Put like things together.  Not only does this make sense strategically (they keep like things together in stores for a reason) but also spatially: like things tend to have like dimensions and like requirements for temperature and humidity (produce likes to be cool and damp — stationery not so much).  When I moved all my magazines to the same shelf I magically freed up a few square feet of shelf space for canning jars — space that didn’t appear to be available a few minutes before.
  • Think vertically.  Looking back on pictures of crappy apartments I’ve lived in I can see clearly now that one of the things that makes the spaces look so dorm-like, so cluttered and immature, is that everything is in copy paper boxes on the floor.  Sometimes the boxes are stacked, but usually not.  (You can see this in one of the “before” pictures from my last post — the one from just after our move to this house in 2006.)  And when look at the pretty storage rooms in Pottery Barn and Martha Stewart Living they are arranged vertically, not horizontally.  Not only do you multiply your storage space when you install shelving or invest in taller bookcases, but it’s pleasing to the eye.
  • Don’t keep multiples.  This is one of those rules, like changing your fire alarm batteries when you reset your clocks for the beginning and end of Daylight Saving Time, that everyone knows but few people enforce.  It can be hard to part with that extra pasta serving spoon or those black pumps that look almost exactly like the ones you favor but that rub your heels.  One of these days you’ll need to serve spaghetti and the other pasta server will be dirty or you’ll be dressed and ready to go out but the heel on your go-to pumps snaps.  Possible, yes.  But . . . does it ever actually happen?  Have you ever used the extra thing?  If you do, then by all means keep it.  But if you’re holding on to it “in case” and don’t use it because you greatly prefer the one you do use or because you feel like having one in reserve acts as a talisman to keep #1 from breaking then maybe you need to say it out loud and listen to yourself.  I know this can be hard.  I just about died paring down my ludicrous collection of half a dozen unused typewriters to two that had sentimental value.  But you know what?  Not only do I not miss my once-beloved collection I now can’t even remember what models they were! (Naturally, I am not referring to consumables like envelopes or overstock foodstuffs that will be used up.)
  • Don’t keep what you don’t use.  Matt and I merged our stuff pretty well when we moved in together.  Really, our stuff fit like puzzle pieces; what I had he didn’t and vice versa.  I had towels and he had sheets.  I had baking dishes and he had stove-top skillets and pans.  But a few months ago, in the back of a drawer, I found an open package of those bags to cook turkeys in.  I have roasted dozens of fowl in this house and never used one.  I considered keeping them (even though they were at least 7 years old, maybe older) just in case I decided to try them out (even though my roasting method hasn’t failed yet) or in case Matt wanted to roast a bird (not bloody likely).  Dude, no.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Things you don’t use or “might” (but really won’t ever) use take up valuable space that could be filled by things you do use.
  • Don’t keep things that make you feel bad.  This piece of advice comes from a book I highly recommend: Throw out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke.  Many organization books advise that you keep only the things that are useful or make you feel good (drawing, I assume, from the William Morris quote “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”) but Ms. Blanke reverses it and gets a totally different reaction.  Now its not about acquiring feel-good stuff, its about purging feel-bad stuff.  She says “if it makes you feel bad, it doesn’t add anything to your life, or you have to agonize over your decision too long, let it go.”
  • Cover it up.  This is like a magic trick.  I love this.  You get everything together and organized and you feel so good about it . . . but it’s still there.  Being all busy and distracting in the corner.  It’s a vast improvement over the leaning tower of dusty boxes but the shelves bulging with stuff are still kind of an eyesore.  Curtains to the rescue!  If you are talented with cabinetry you can get or make doors and install them, making your shelves into a built-in cabinet.  If not you can buy or make a cheap curtain.  Thrift stores, Ikea, and department stores like Kmart frequently have super-cheap simple curtains that you can cut down or sew together to cover your space.  Curtain hardware is generally easy to install.
  • Consolidate.  You don’t need that one tiny bookcase and that one tiny filing cabinet.  You need one shelf that holds both books and files.
  • Do a little each day.  Be like water.  Erode the clutter.  Devote some small bit of time each day– fifteen minutes seems ideal, in my experience — to one room of the house per day. (I have a rotating cleaning schedule that focuses on a different room each day of the week, and when there’s no serious cleaning to be done in said room I spend the time picking at the clutter, instead.)  Fifteen minutes may not result in monumental change, but fifteen minutes a week over the course of a month or two will add up to noticeable results.  And the results will encourage you to continue.
  • Once you’ve streamlined, don’t yo-yo.  Practice balance and the principle of “one in, one out”.  Maintain.

— Amanda

Before and after: On top of my dresser

Before: Lookit all that stuff!
After: I pared it down to what I use but I left Granda’s bottle and added a plant for color.

Everyone loves before and after photos, am I right?  This one won’t exactly blow your mind but I sure enjoy looking at it every day.  Every little bit really helps.  I accomplished this over the span of an afternoon (coming and going between other chores — not a solid afternoon of nothing but rearranging the top of my dresser) by consolidating the jewelry I actually wear into the little leather box at the front and moving the other boxes (and all those damn bottles) into the “linen closet” behind the bedroom door.  It took longer to rearrange the linen closet to accommodate this stuff neatly than it did to get it off the dresser.

The mother-in-law-tongue plant and its snazzy planter both came from Christianson’s Nursery in Mt. Vernon.  I chose it because it can tolerate a lot of neglect and low light.

— Amanda

"Stocking" your closet

Decluttering should be approached in the same zen-like frame of mind as weight loss: this didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to get fixed overnight.  Just as you can only chip away so many calories from a day and so many pounds in a week or a month, you can only tidy or rearrange so many things in a day or week to fix up a space in a week or a month.  And both, in my opinion, are ongoing concerns.  There’s no real “end” to getting your body in shape and there’s no real “end” to getting your living space in shape.  You may get all the unwanted stuff out some day but that may leave you with something awkward you want to reshape with remodeling (via the hardware store or the gym, respectively).

You’re going to keep eating.  You’re going to keep buying stuff.  You’re not “done” until you’re dead.

OK, so now that I’ve been all preachy and worn a metaphor wafer thin, here’s the actual tip:

One of the all-time great organization tips, one that you will encounter in every single organization book is the one about ditching any clothes you haven’t worn in a year.  This, along with the one about throwing away (without looking inside) any box you haven’t opened in a year, is very very very hard for me.

I read a book not too long ago that had a variant version of this rule that I preferred: take everything out of your closet and dresser and dump it on the floor or in a box and then working your way through it by wearing everything at least once.  If you wear it you put it back on the hanger or back in the drawer and if you try it on and think “ugh, no” you take it to the thrift store.  The old wisdom was to do this in a day; to heap everything on your bed and try everything on, one after another, like a horrible back-to-school-shopping flashback, and make all those decisions in one day.  Eep!  Too stressful.  I know I would make decisions I would regret later.  This newer method lets me evaluate the piece for a day.  Maybe I hated that shirt all by itself but it turns out to be the perfect thing for layering under that sweater I never wear because the neckline is too low.  Or maybe I thought that dress wasn’t a flattering color but when I get to the grocery store three women stop me to tell me they love it on me.  (Both of these things have happened to me.)

While I think this is a great idea I haven’t got the floorspace required for all those clothes to hang out for who-knows-how-long while I work my lazy ass through them.

In many retail stores — and not just groceries — the stocking policy is to put the new stuff behind the old stuff.  With this in mind, I instituted a new rule, instead of letting my only-just-now tidy bedroom devolve back into chaos.  First I sorted all the closet clothes into bunches (all the shirts together, all the jackets together, all the skirts together, etc.).  No need to do this in the dresser, since it’s sorted by drawer.  So the new rule is: after you wear it, if you’re going to keep it it goes in back (in the closet) or at the bottom of the pile (in the dresser).  If I’m not keeping it it either goes to the thrift store or in rare cases (such as the Ireland shirt) gets restyled.  (Added bonus: this answers the nagging daily question of “What am I gonna wear today?”  Well, you’re wearing that thing, because it’s on top.  And if it’s really so goddamn awful to have to wear that today then ditch it!)

To save precious space, I use these clever skirt hangers that hang off of each other.  When I have worn a skirt I take it off of the “to be worn” cluster of hangers and add it to this one, which has a binder ring slipped around the neck of the top hanger to indicate that it’s the “used” bunch.

Soon, I will have worked my way through the lot and I will not only have gotten rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit or makes me feel bad, but I will have found a new appreciation for some old stuff I didn’t use to fit or like, and I will have invented some creative new outfits, too.

The book I think I got this tip from is Throw out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke.  I highly recommend it because it stresses repeatedly a point I really needed to hear: that you shouldn’t keep anything that makes you feel bad about yourself, no matter how much it cost or who gave it to you.  Also, unlike any other organization book I’ve encountered, this book does not limit itself to your home and office.  It also gives advice on decluttering your mind, because you’re metaphorically tripping over that inferiority complex as surely as you’re physically tripping over that box on the landing.  Seriously, though: this is the only organization book I have read that I look forward to rereading some day soon.  (Also, the book on tape version was great, and that is not always the case, even with the best of books.)

— Amanda

Seeds away!

If you have been reading this blog long then you know that I flat hate to throw anything away.  This means that my crusade to de-clutter is taking a monumentally long time because I have to sit and think about every last item.  Books go to the Friends of the Library book sale.  Some things just go straight to the thrift store.  Some things go on eBay (vintage items, fabrics, DVDs), and if they don’t sell in one or two tries they go to the thrift store, too.  Some things get recycled.  Some things go on CraigsList (just today I finally gave away a knee-high stack of denim that had been taking up floor space at the foot of the bed to a crafter who responded to my CraigsList ad).  And sometimes I have to find a whole new plan of action.

Seeds are packaged for a certain growing year.  In that year they are at their most potent and the greatest majority of them will germinate under the correct conditions.  With a few notable exceptions (parsnips come to mind) most seeds are good for two or three years.  Sometimes longer.  But I have the funds to buy them fresh each year and I do, so that I can be certain I’m going to get a good crop.  But I never have been able to throw away the seeds from the previous year.  Somebody can use these . . .

Google found me a half dozen charities that collect donations of old seed packets and ship them to third world nations.  I also found a few master gardener programs and land grant universities with programs that accept donations of seeds, but they were on the other side of the Rockies, if not the other coast entirely.  It’s not that I don’t care about the rest of the world, but this little niche is where I live and it’s where I like to focus my energies.  I made up a list of local organizations I thought might be interested in this kind of gift.  The WSU Growing Groceries program,  my local food bank, and a few individuals who posted wanted ads on CraigsList.  But I lucked out with the very first place I called: the nearest community garden.

My note reads: Free vegetable seeds!* 1-2 years old but still viable Mostly heirloom and open-pollinated.  No GMO.  (*And a few flowers.)

So on my way to the grocery store (which, incidentally, was also where I met up with my CraigsList crafter and handed over my denim collection) I swung into Wilcox Community Garden and put my gallon-size baggie of seeds on their sign-up table.  There’s some great stuff in there, so I hope someone can get some tasty grub out of it.

— Amanda