Archive for category Household
The past two weekends, my neighbors held a yard sale. Apparently my boys could smell commerce happening nearby, because within moments of awakening, they were at the window. “The neighbor has a tent on his lawn,” Ezra announced. Both boys spent most of the weekends outside asking questions and fondling nicknacks or glued to the window watching people come and go.
“We need a canoe.” “Ball next door!” “Mom, can we go look at the games again?” “My boat.” They managed to tote home a number of odd things from the free box, including a stained white plastic ball that looks like it came from the antenna of a Jeep, a telephone that would have been state-of-the-art when I was Ezra’s age, and a wide-brimmed hat that fits no one in the house.
These finds joined other relics that Ezra’s lugged home over the years, including a couple of other land-line telephones, a broken audio cassette recorder, and a microphone. Apparently our compulsion to collect stuff starts at a young age, and it only seems to escalate from there. On our recent camping trip, I was amazed by all the things people bring to “get away from it all” – super-sized motorhomes, patio furniture, dog beds and crates and yards. Of course, we toted our share of stuff back and forth from our car, although fortunately we were severely constricted by its compact size.
It’s not that I don’t love stuff. Every time I turn on my washing machine, drop into my bed at the end of the day, or turn on my computer, I am thankful for the material things that make our lives better. My goal is not necessarily to have less. I’m not on a mission to pare my belongings to 100 things as many bloggers have amazingly done. I just want to be intentional about what I bring into my life. I want to spend my money, time, and attention on things that bring me happiness and satisfaction. And I want to try to keep in mind a purchase’s entire life cycle: where did it come from and where will it end up?
In this issue of YES! Magazine (all about the “Human Cost of Stuff”) Annie Leonard says it well: “I’m neither for nor against stuff. I like stuff it’s well-made, honestly marketed, used for a long time, and at the end of its life recycled in a way that doesn’t trash the planet, poison people, or exploit workers. Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful.” (My review of Judy Wicks’ Good Morning, Beautiful Business is also in this issue. Check it out if you see a copy!)
Visiting second-hand stores helps me be more intentional about new purchases. All those cluttered shelves of hardly used, outdated appliances helps take the sheen off the marketing and shiny newness in box and department stores. Recently Ezra and I wandered through several used stores together. He’s been wanting a Leap Pad learning system, because he loves playing with his friend’s, and I heard used stores tend to have vast quantities of them. When the first three stores didn’t have one, Ezra was desperate to bring home something – anything. He insisted he would be happy with a pair of butterfly wings, a toy cash register, or a toy laptop instead of a Leap Pad. I convinced him to wait until we checked out the last store.
They had exactly what Ezra wanted, and it was just $5. “I’m so glad we waited,” Ezra beamed as he hugged his new Leap Pad. I’m hoping he learned something about being intentional about purchases. And for now, fortunately, the yard sales are over; please don’t let any of our neighbors open an ice cream cart.
Do you try to be intentional about your purchases? Do you have any tips to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
When I decided to work at home a few years ago, a lot of people thought I was crazy. “You can’t work at home with little kids,” more than a few told me. On occasion (think: screaming toddler, ramshackle house, hungry cats, imminent deadline), I’ve agreed. The work-at-home parent life is not always easy.
But most of the time I love it. I get to hang out with two charming little boys, spend lots of time outside and in my garden, see friends most days, and write. It’s a pretty wonderful gig. Here are some tricks I’ve learned to make it work if you too are doing the work-at-home life or contemplating it.
- Divide the day
In the mornings, I do the house chores, including making a healthy lunch and sometimes dinner in advance. Mid morning, we often meet friends or go to the park, on a walk, or to the library. In the afternoons, I work (during nap and preschool time and when my husband gets home). By dividing the day this way, my kids know what to expect, and I rarely have to multitask home and work tasks.
- Reprogram your relationship with time
I worked outside of the home for more than a decade, so it took me a long time to shift to a work-at-home mentality. When I was gone all day and got home at 6:30 or 8:30 in the evenings, my main cooking concern was short preparation time. Now, I have plenty of time. So I can easily make nutritious meals that require little effort but lots of cooking time, like beans, grains, and stock. We rely heavily on those staples for most of our meals.
- Plan, but not too much
For a long time, I made detailed to-do lists every day, which helped me remember everything I needed to do to manage a house and business. Now I’ve mostly gotten the house chores down, and I’ve discovered a new deceptively simple trick to stay on task with work. Right after I wake up, I think of the one thing I want to get done during my work time. I can’t believe how much this helps me prioritize and focus.
I’m also learning when to ditch the plans and take advantage of the perks of working at home. We’ve had some insanely nice weather this spring, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to revel in it. My garden is grateful too.
- Schedule alone time
This year, I started waking up at 5 and going on a run or walk before my family wakes up. It’s completely transformed my days. I savor that quiet time outside (especially now that the sun is up and the birds are singing), and I have infinitely more energy and patience all day long.
- Fill their tanks
When Ezra went through a hitting stage awhile ago, I discovered a magical solution to almost any behavioral problem. After trying nearly everything else I could imagine, I told Ezra to come sit on my lap for a few minutes when he felt like he wanted to hit his brother. He did, and the hitting completely stopped.
No matter how busy I am, I try to remind myself that it’s easier to give one-on-one attention each morning than to manage the whining, tantrums, and fights that ensue when attention tanks run low. Likewise, lots of outside play and regular high protein snacks work miracles.
- Silence is golden
A few years ago, I read an article by a police officer who responds to domestic violence situations. The first thing he does when he enters a house is walk around and turn off all of the background noise. He says usually a radio and TV are blaring. It took me a long time to realize how much noise can affect a household. I listen to a podcast or turn on music for a while every day. When it’s on, I really listen to it. Then I turn it off. We all get along a lot better when we can focus on and hear each other.
- Turn off notifications
I heard that they design “you’ve got mail” bongs to stimulate the opiate receptors in our brains. Maybe that’s why it’s nearly impossible to ignore one when you hear it. I check my email about three times throughout the day. Other than that, I keep it closed. The same is true for Facebook and Twitter, which I allocate a small window of time to each day. Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way.
- Beware the learning curve
Managing a house and business and parenting at the same time requires new skills, tricks, and tools. For me, it took about two years to feel somewhat competent, which leads me to my last point and the giant caveat to everything I’ve written above….
- Be ready for change and setbacks
Every time I think I’ve got the work-at-home parent life down, things change. One of the kids goes through a monstrous (three-year long) bout of separation anxiety. Another gets four molars in two weeks. An editor emails with an amazing opportunity the same week everyone in the house gets the flu. It’s inevitable.
And finally, the most important thing I’d recommend for the work-at-home life is an awesome partner. My husband watches two little boys while he’s getting ready for work most days. Then he gets home from a long work day and usually makes dinner while I work. There’s no doubt about it, he’s the rock star behind this operation.
Do you work at home with kids? Do you have any tricks, lessons, or hacks you’re willing to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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It’s the time of year when we prune the rosebushes in our backyard down to a few stalks. For several weeks afterward, they look stark, straggly, and half-dead.
Then an amazing thing happens. By May, they transform into vibrant, healthy bushes overflowing with blossoms.
It’s life-changing to witness this process time and again, because it exemplifies how powerful it is to get rid of what you don’t need.
So around this time of the year, I inevitably find myself taking inventory of all of the stuff in our lives — and feeling a tad buried.
For much of January, I feared I’d never see the floor in Ezra’s room again. I’m in a never-ending battle with the end table in our kitchen, which magnetically attracts loose toy parts, tools, and scraps of paper. And I avoid our garage altogether, because I fear I won’t make it through the piles of detritus without spelunking gear.
But I also can’t help but peek back at where we’ve been and celebrate some successes in our quest to live better with less stuff.
Over the years, I’ve discovered a secret to simplifying. It’s not about having less. It’s about figuring out who you are and what you love. Then you can keep and celebrate the things that make you feel alive and happy — and donate or discard the rest.
It’s tempting to think if you have the space to store extra clothes, there’s no harm in keeping them around. But rifling through the stuff littering our lives takes a daily toll. Last year I got rid of more than half of my clothes and all but five pairs of shoes, and every day I feel lighter and happier because of it. Less laundry. Less stress. More space.
Here are a few tips if you’re thinking of dramatically paring down your wardrobe:
1. Your motto is, “If in doubt, throw it out.” Repeat it often.
2. Take the time to figure out what kind of clothes and shoes you really like. You can learn more about what colors look good on you here. And you can explore what styles look good on you here (women) or here (men).
3. Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit right, isn’t flattering, or is damaged.
4. Be aware of emotional attachments to certain clothing items, which make it harder to part with them.
5. Never welcome new clothes into your wardrobe without saying goodbye to some first.
6. Be gracious but judicious about gifts. I’m thankful that my sister gifts me lots of slightly-used clothes. But I’ve had to learn to be a little bit picky about which ones I keep and which ones I pass on to somebody else.
- Personal care items
Over the years, we’ve traded all of our costly, chemical-laden, heavily-packaged personal care items for simple, safe, inexpensive alternatives. In every single case, the alternatives work better. But the real pay off is how much lighter our lives are without half-empty plastic bottles and tubes cluttering our bathroom drawers and counters.
If you’re on a mission to downsize your personal care items, here are a few of our favorite swaps:
1. Baking soda and vinegar for shampoo and conditioner.
2. Castile soap for face and bar soap.
3. Castile soap or homemade tooth powder for toothpaste. (Scared to give up commercial toothpaste? So was I. Then I did, and I was amazed. I have cleaner teeth, healthier gums, and no more tooth sensitivity.)
4. A mix of 50/50 baking soda and cornstarch for deodorant.
6. Salt water for mouthwash.
7. Coconut or olive oil for lotion.
Tip: If it feels drab to swap colorful sweet-smelling products for simple alternatives, consider packaging your homemade personal care items in jars, making beautiful labels, and using essential oils to jazz them up.
- Toys and kids’ clothes
I’ve heard of four-year-olds who clean their rooms, but Ezra is allergic to cleanliness. He delights in transferring all of his toys and books from the tubs, drawers, and shelves I use to try to maintain order in his little corner of our house to the floor.
The other day as I was muttering about the disorder, Ezra diagnosed the problem. “I like it messy, Mom. Then I can find everything.” It was a huge breakthrough. I realized that I’m not going to keep his room clean no matter what I do. So I let it go.
Of course, we still need to get inside his little kingdom, so I decided to try an idea I’ve heard about. I packed up a couple of boxes of his toys and put them in the garage with plans to pull them out in a few weeks in exchange for different toys. The goal is to keep a revolving carousal of toys. That way even when every single toy in the room is on the floor, we can still open the door and move around. So far it’s working great.
We’ve also been purging clothes, books, and toys as Ira outgrows them, and I stumbled onto a brilliant idea to make that easier. An acquaintance of ours throws an annual children’s toy, book, and clothes swap. Parents bring what their kids have outgrown and trade them for things their kids can use now. It’s amazing! You can pare down, hang out with friends, and save money all at the same time. And they’re casual and informal affairs, so it would be easy to organize one yourself.
As the weather warms, we’ll need to sharpen our clippers and tackle some areas desperately in need of pruning, like, ahem, the garage. It’s nice that we can arm ourselves with the glow of a few past successes.
Are you trying to live better with less stuff? Do you have tips, successes, and ideas to share? I’d love to read about it in the comments.
My husband and I recently achieved the pinnacle of our domestic lives together. We cleared the counter in our laundry room. It was like jumping into a time machine back to the spring of 2008 just before we became parents. Apparently that’s when we last had time for organizing. Handouts from our birthing classes and congratulations-on-the-new-baby-cards mingled with mail, tools, broken toys, and bits of wayward debris. This tucked-away rubbish pile enabled the rest of the house to look relatively tidy and clutter-free. But occasionally one of us would have to suit up and traverse into this danger zone to try to find something. So finally we spent a morning sorting and shredding, recycling and organizing . . . and we unearthed a glistening, white counter.
As we gazed it, the inevitable question arose: what should we put on it? The bill file? The laundry detergent? Cleaning supplies?
Then, it occurred to us.
If we left the counter empty, we could actually use it for folding laundry, brewing beer, or making crafts. For activities, rather than stuff.
I’m in love with our empty counter. I feel happy every time I see it. So I’ve been on a mission lately to empty tables. My desk. The table in my office. The kitchen table and counters. They’re not always empty, of course. There’s nothing I love more than a table full of food or craftiness. But empty is their default state. And when they’re full, they are intentionally so, because someone’s using them.
I’ve taken this empty-table approach into my working life as well. Working at home means maneuvering around the clamor of family life, which is the best and hardest part of it. When I sit down to work, I have to focus regardless of what’s going on in the wider world of my household. I’ve found it immensely helpful to take a few moments to empty my table, so to speak, by focusing on my breath and clearing away any mental clutter before I dig into my work.
Now, if my husband and I can just tackle the garage.
Have you discovered any household tips or tricks that make you happier? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear about them.
Lately I’ve been cleaning, and when I say cleaning, I mean emptying dressers, stripping closets, and purging file cabinets and hard drives. I feel agitated when the kitchen counter is not scrubbed clean. I eye the newspaper moments after bringing it in from the porch, eager to recycle it.
The other day, as I was uttering “Why are these (fill in the blank: trains, balls, cars, clothes) always on the floor?” while I zipped around the house tidying, it occurred to me that the intensity of all of this scouring, scrubbing, and sanitizing isn’t, um, exactly normal for me.
Then I remembered something my friend said during her first pregnancy. “I knew I was nesting when I finished vacuuming and then took the vacuum apart to clean it.”
Oh, right, nesting. Is that what I’ve been doing?
Here’s what Pregnancy Weekly says about it:
Nesting brings about some unique and seemingly irrational behaviors in pregnant women and all of them experience it differently. Women have reported throwing away perfectly good sheets and towels because they felt the strong need to have “brand new, clean” sheets and towels in their home. They have also reported doing things like taking apart the knobs on kitchen cupboards, just so they could disinfect the screws attached to the knobs. Women have discussed taking on cleaning their entire house, armed with a toothbrush.
Okay, so that does sound curiously like what I’ve been doing. But I’m still clinging to the idea that I rationally make decisions about my day-to-day activities.
In any case, I figured I’d put all of this organizing mojo to use and attack a few of the more messy, disheveled, bedraggled corners of my life.
Enter: my Google feed reader.
A minimalist blogger recommends regularly purging your feed reader entirely and adding back only the blogs you miss. Sounds like a great idea, right?
I opened my reader, resolved to click on “delete all”. Except first I had to browse through my list of blogs … and then read through a few recent posts … and then click on a few of the posts those posts mentioned.
Full confession: I added seven blogs to my feed reader and deleted maybe six. Oops. So much for purging. But I fully intend to return to said reader with a more discerning eye in the near future.
There are just so many great blogs out there. Recently a reader recommended Drawing America by Bike, where Eric Clausen documents his 14-month round-the-country bike tour with ink drawings. It’s very cool, and it made me wonder what else I don’t know about.
I know it’s the opposite of purging, but in the interest of making my feed reader more interesting (albeit a little cluttered) will you help me by answering a few questions:
What’s your favorite blog? What blog(s) deserves to be on my feed reader? If you have time, I’m also curious, approximately how many blogs do you read? How do you keep up with them? Do you use a feed reader or some other method? Do you read blogs every day, once a week, or less often?
Thanks for your feedback! I’ll check out all of your recommendations and report back next week on my favorite new finds.
(To reach me, you can leave a comment below, email newurbanhabitat at gmail dot com, or tweet @newurbanhabitat.)
Last summer, a writing professor asked me if I wanted to know the key to her success. Her articles and essays appear in a list of impressive publications, including Brain, Child; Orion; and The Washington Post. Of course, I was dying to find out. Was it her sparkling wit, discipline, fastidious proofreading, or some kind of superhuman resistance to rejection? Or maybe it was a brilliant critique circle? Or a special roast of Peruvian coffee?
“Thank you notes,” she said.
Of course, this writer is also creative, disciplined, and persistent, but she swears that thank you notes – like the ones your mom forced you to write to grandma as a kid – are what’s helped her succeed in a hyper-competitive field.
“Doesn’t matter whether it’s through e-mail, on pink scented paper, or via pigeon—a note of genuine gratitude deepens a working relationship with editors,” she explains on her blog.
The same writer makes a point of sending a note of appreciation once a week to another writer whose work she enjoys, saying it helps her form connections with other people in her field.
I’ve taken her advice to heart with editors, and I have no doubt that sending a simple thank you card – whether after a job interview, publication, or event – helps you stand out. I ran into an editor last summer, who told me mine is the only thank you letter he’s ever received from a writer.
I don’t send a thank you letter to a writer every week, but I love the idea. Ever since I heard it, I’m more likely to comment on blogs or send quick emails of appreciation. I’ve also made it a point to send thank yous for gifts my family receives. They’re so simple, and I’ve found that the practice of writing them breeds gratitude, an emotion psychologists insist makes us happy.
Of course, the best thing about saying thank you is not what it does for the sender, but for the recipient. It’s always great to hear that someone’s genuinely grateful for your efforts.
If you’ve grown out of practice of writing thank yous, it’s easy. Load up on cards and stamps, so you always have them on hand, and write whatever comes to mind. If you’re stuck, brainstorm on what you want to say before you put pen to paper, or check out these resources for tips on composing all kinds of thank you letters:
- How to Write a Thank-You Note – The Morning News
- Thank You Note Samples
- Thank You Letters for Job Searchers – About.com
You’ve probably heard about the dangers of multitasking. Apparently trying to do more than one thing at a time is worse for your productivity than staying up all night watching infomercials or smoking marijuana.
In one study, students took 40 percent longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to switch to other tasks. Another study showed that multitasking changes the way we learn and makes us less able to recall memories. If you’re about to click away from this article, because you’ve mastered the art of multitasking, a third study might make you think twice. It turns out heavy multitaskers are worse at doing numerous tasks than light multitaskers.
And the worst part? When we multitask, our bodies release stress hormones and adrenaline. We feel stressed, pressured, angry, and frustrated. One Australian doctor even blames multitasking for “epidemics of rage”.
Maybe you’ve heard that multitasking isn’t as hard for women as it is for men, that our brains are wired differently? Well research has debunked that as well. According to Josh Naish, a science writer at the Daily Mail, “The bulk of scientific investigation into the brain reveals no significant difference between the sexes. The widespread belief that women’s brains are naturally better at multi-tasking seems to be a myth.”
So you’re convinced? From now on, it’s all about focus. Doing one thing at a time. Paying attention.
Me too – except for one thing. I’m a parent, and I work at home. That means that I am doing at least two things every waking moment of every day. I am caretaking, i.e. reminding my three-year-old to look both ways before crossing the street, washing his hands, switching his shoes to the right feet, helping him get dressed (strangely this happens about 30 times a day), feeding him, entertaining him, helping him help me with something, etc… Meanwhile, I’m doing what needs to get done each day to keep our household and my business afloat.
Even when my son is napping or at a friend’s house, and I have some focused work time, I’m on alert, waiting for him to stir or wondering if I will get a phone call from his caretaker. Honestly I have a feeling that if parents took the multitasking research seriously and stopped, disaster would ensue.
So I like to take comfort from this bit of research on the maternal brain. At least in rats, the hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding reshape the female brain – increasing the size of neurons in some areas and building new structural pathways in others. “Some of these sites are involved in regulating maternal behaviors such as building nests, grooming young and protecting them from predators,” Scientific America reports. “Other affected regions, though, control memory, learning, and responses to fear and stress.” Surely our species is just as well-equipped for parenting, right?
That said, when I started working at home a couple of years ago, I had significant room for improvement in the area of focus. There was always so much to do, and I found myself not just doing one thing (caretaking) while trying to do another (checking my email). I tried to do many, many things at once. Too often I wandered around the house jumping from one task to the next, leaving everything in various stages of incompleteness.
When I recognized that, ahem, I was a multitasker, I imagined exciting solutions to my problem – a fancy smart phone app, some sort of color-coded charting system perhaps – until I stumbled onto the real solution. A simple, humble checklist.
That’s right, I wrote down everything I needed to get done each day. Then I forced myself to focus on one task, finish it, cross it off the list, and go to the next. I know, humans were most likely doing this on cave walls in hieroglyphics thousands of years ago. Here’s why – it works.
Now even when I don’t make a checklist, I take the checklist mentality into my day and force myself to do one thing at a time. Of course, I’m constantly fielding the inevitable distractions of parenting a small child – “I can’t find my bear book.” “Where are my buttons-on-the-legs pants?” “Do we have strawberries?” “I have to go potty.” – but I get loads more done and feel less frustrated.
Maybe you’re thinking that a checklist sounds kind of lame, low-tech … unglamorous. I know. But I’m not the only one singing its praises. Dr. Peter Provonost won the Macarthur Genius Award and was named one of Time Magazine‘s most influential people in 2008, because he found a way to radically decrease infection rates at his hospital, save lives, and cut millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses. His brilliant idea? He required doctors to use a checklist when inserting catheters.
So if you’re feeling harried and unsure of how to find your way out of the multitasking habit, the solution might be easier than you think. Try this: make a list and force yourself to actually use it.
Do you use checklists? Have you discovered other simple hacks for kicking the multitasking habit, or for juggle parenting with working? I’d love to hear about it.