Not Everything Needs To Be Perfect

Let me say (write…) that again:

Not Everything Needs To Be Perfect.

Ideally, everything in your home will have a home of its own (“a place for everything, and everything in its place yadda yadda yadda”), but the goal of this whole thing is not to have your home look like OCD City.  Really.  The cans in your pantry do not all need to be facing the same direction (although it’s lovely when they are, it’s also kind of scary), and the towels don’t all need to line up on the towel bar.  You don’t live at Pottery Barn.  Your home is not a movie set.  You are not Gary and Elaine.

Your home should be your soft spot to land.  It should be your sanctuary from the rest of this prickly world.  You should be able to pull your car into the garage, walk into your kitchen (mudroom, whatever), put down your bag, sort your mail on an empty flat surface, feed whoever in your home is hungry, and then chill out for a little while before bed.

Think about it.  What would that be like?  Because it’s possible.  That could be what many (not all, because I’m not a freaking magician) of your evenings are like.  Not perfect.  Just… easy.  Well, easiER, at least.

This is about being able to sit in any chair in your house.  It’s about eating at a table, or at least being able to choose to eat standing up in the kitchen instead of it being the only reasonable place it can happen.  It’s about having a clean towel next to your shower, and clean sheets on everybody’s bed.  It’s about having people over to watch the Oscars or the Super Bowl or just dinner (or the Tonys, which are next week!!!) and not spending two solid days clearing a trail from the couch to the TV to the bathroom.  It’s about having a general idea of where just about anything in your house is.

It’s not an impossible dream (♪♫to dreeeeeeeeeeeeam the impossible dreeeeeeeeeeeeeeam♪♫).  It’s a reasonable expectation.  Really.  It is.  It’s doable.  I promise (or as Boo says, “Pinky swear!”).  It may take some time to get there, though.  You may not know where or how to start.  You’re not alone.  A lot of people don’t know where to start.  Hell, when I was first keeping my own house, it was a disaster.  I alphabetized my movies (it’s always been lurking just below the surface…) but there was not a clean plate to be found.

The idea of hiring a Professional Organizer seems quite lofty, yes?  It does.  Hoi, polloi, aren’t we fancy and helpless, not being able to clean our house?  Don’t think about it like that.  One of my clients said it so perfectly:  “It’s like you’re a personal trainer for my house”.  You know how you go to a gym (or, like me, you may have friends who go to a gym) and there’s a person standing next to you, cheering or coaching or somehow encouraging you to continue?  She (or Hot Muscle-y He?) guides you through new routines, correcting your form, making sure you don’t take on too much, pushing you to keep going?

That’s me.  That’s what I am able to do.  And to be crass and talk (if only briefly) about money, I’m likely within your budget.

So there it is.  When someone asks for an explanation of what I do (and they have a few minutes…) that’s what I tell them.  I’m not going to swoop in and make your life perfect.  But I can help you Get A Grip (get it? makes sense now, doesn’t it?) on it.

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Outsourcing

I saw this article in the New York Times today and it resonated.  This paragraph in particular really struck me as relevant to what I’m doing:

WE’VE put a self-perpetuating cycle in motion. The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises: Do you need a tidier closet? A nicer family picture album? Elderly parents who are truly well cared for? Children who have an edge in school, on tests, in college and beyond? If we can afford the services involved, many if not most of us are prone to say, sure, why not?”

I love me some New York Times, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Gray Lady is missing the freaking point.  We live in a society of more.  We want to have more, to do more, to know more, to be more.  Women are raised hearing some BS about “having it all” and we spend a whole lotta time and effort getting it all and then maintaining it all so we can continue to have it all because evidently we’re supposed to do it all as well.

Man, I’m tired.  I can’t maintain this mythical “all”.  I can do “some” very well. I’m also very good at handling “none”, truth be told. But I can only half-ass “all” until I’m blue in the face, and then I need help. And what Mr/Ms (hard to say, really) Arlie Russell Hochschild doesn’t seem to realize as s/he writes this think piece is that right now when so many of us have obligations and expectations placed upon us by powers beyond our control, we still need to hold it together well enough to get through to the weekend where we can crack open a beer and collapse in front of whatever remains on the Netflix suggestions that hasn’t been usurped by a pre-schooler’s endless tolerance for Kipper and Phineas & Ferb.  And we want to collapse in a fairly clean house.

I have a lady who comes in twice a month to clean the house (I’m suddenly working about a job and a half, and dammit I still need to have a clean house).  This “outsourcing” is a splurge for us, because it’s not like we have money shooting out of our asses growing on our trees.  And we pick up after ourselves and wipe off the counters and clean the toilets even though we have this help happening.  Having a cleaning lady (ohhhh so posh we are) is a choice we made because that is the sort of help we need right now.  

So this Mr/Ms Arlie Russell Hochschild to blast some judgement about people who realize that they are unable to do it all but still would like to have all of it done just grinds my gears.  How dare s/he!  I can’t even comprehend how s/he thought it would be appropriate to put “caring for elderly parents” with having a tidy closet.  Really?  So his/her (good lord how annoying is this androgynous name…) aging mother (or father, because who can tell?) (yes I’m getting huffy about this person) didn’t or won’t get the best care s/he’s able to provide, just out of some principle of “why pay for what you can do for yourself”?

Oh, OK.  It must be nice (HI I’M PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE NOW) to not need to ask for or pay for help.  Ever.  At all.  Rock on, Jeanne d’Arc, with your martyred self.  The rest of us out in the real world have learned that it’s OK to seek assistance when it’s just too much to deal with.  Even if that means we have to cut back somewhere to make the help accessible.  It’s worth it.

Hit the road, Jack!

We went to Disneyland last week.  Boo is 3-1/2, and we always said that we would take her when she was old enough not to be carried all day (interestingly, “old enough” is not the same as “willing”, but whatever).  I’m a notoriously anxious traveler/over-packer, but I tried really extra super hard not to make everyone else crazy.  I made it until about Thursday afternoon, I think.  More on this in a minute.

Now that we’re home and unpacked and the laundry is done and put away (!!!), I think a wrap-up is in order.  Chances are, this isn’t our last trip to the Magic Kingdom, and we learned quite a bit about how we are when we take our show on the road.

Here are my Top Five Questions to think about when you’re planning a trip.

1.  What’s your priority?  What’s the purpose of the trip?

Mr Incredible and I were on board with making this about Boo–her first time to Disneyland was going to revolve around her schedule, her moods, her interests.  Not every trip is going to be a pure child-focused family vacation–most of our travel is to visit family or attend events.  Those trips have a different dynamic and we have specific expectations for them.  When we’re in visiting mode, we want to be on our best behavior.  We don’t see relatives as often as we’d like (unless it’s WAY TOO FREAKING OFTEN, and stay tuned for some future musings about dealing with family…) so there’s a lot of talking and not always a lot of action.

Last fall, we flew to Arkansas to attend my cousin’s wedding, and we learned that it’s important to scope out where the fun is when you get to somewhere new.  You’re going to have down time, and you can’t depend on good weather.  We spent a lot of time driving around in the rain on our way to sit down and chat and eat.  That can be tough on kids, and they get bored fast.  Most towns have indoor play facilities, and you can sign up for a free “introductory” tumbling or dance class if you have shorties who need to burn off some steam for an hour or two.  Don’t be above Chuck E Cheese (OMG, seriously, it’s its own level of hell, but it can be a lifesaver).

2.  Just how much do you actually need to do?

A family vacation can have such a sense of urgency.  You don’t go away often, so when you do, you want to get a lot of bang for your bucks.  And you run yourself and your family into the ground trying to do and see ev.er.y.thing.  Don’t do that.  Don’t be Clark Griswold.   If you’ve never been to where you’re going, do your homework.  Find out the must-sees and must-dos.  Ask your friends if they know anything about your destination.  Chances are, they do, and they can give you invaluable tips.

Another thing, don’t over-schedule your days.  Carve one thing in stone per day, and other stuff can fall into place as it will.  Downtime is important, even for the most enthusiastic travelers.  Will the kids take naps?  Are there places to go during downtime that don’t include locking yourself in the hotel bathroom for five minutes of privacy?

3.  Is all that stuff really necessary?

I’m a notorious over-packer.  Back in the glory days, I would pack a suitcase of just shoes because you just never know if you’re going to need three pairs of black stilettos.  Now?  I’m pretty confident about my stiletto needs.  If I’m not home, I’m not going to want to stomp around in 4-inch heels for 12 hours.

Mr Incredible travels quite a bit for business, so he’s an ace when it comes to packing.  He can fit five days of clothes in a duffel bag and a quarter of our big suitcase.  Love him.  And now that Boo is old enough to sleep in a bed and eat from regular plates and use a bathroom, her packing has gotten seriously lighter.

Check the weather before you go.  Pack for layering, use jackets with hoods instead of umbrellas, bring at least one nicer outfit every time, and extra socks and undies are never a bad idea.  Beyond that, less is more.  It’s not like you’re going to the moon.  If you forget something, or find that you didn’t anticipate something, chances are, you’re not far from Target.

4.  What are the dealbreakers?

Before you back out of the driveway, make sure that everyone, or at least the deciders, is on the same page about key elements of the trip.  For example, I have a pretty firm “No IHOP” rule.  Mr. Incredible knows that barring some unforeseen disaster, our family breakfasts are not going to happen at IHOP while we’re on the road.  We have conversations about wake-up calls and how and where we’re going to spend our time (Park Hopper tickets make this an essential discussion).  Everybody in the group, even the non-deciders, has expectations about what will and will not be a part of the trip, and communication about this is so important.

Which brings me to my previous point about The Crazy.  I tend to get hyperfocused (NO!  really?  Nuh-uh.) and I sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture in my pursuit of whatever I think needs to happen.

I’ve gotten better.  Yes I have.

But it still happens.  A dealbreaker on every trip you take needs to be manners:  we are kind to each other.  Not just superficial and passive aggressive and “OK fine whatever you want to do.”  KINDNESS.  As tired as you are, so is everybody else, and chances are at least one person in the car is about to go all stabbity if they hear someone say or do XYZ one. more. time.  Pay attention to the people you’re with, not just to where you are.

5.  Can you take extra days off from work before and after the actual trip?

We left town on Monday, came back on Friday.  Our Disneyland adventure was bookended by weekends, and I think that’s the way to go.  Ideally, we also have part of at least one business day when at our disposal, just in case.  Like, when we were coming home, we discovered that the brakes on our car needed work (no emergencies, just rough stopping).  We hit town, and there was (technically) time to take the car in before the end of the day.  Of course, it’s important to keep the Dealbreakers in mind when you start piling errands on before and after the trip.  Does someone in the group prefer to stay close to home once we get there?  PERHAPS.

I think my point with all of this is, don’t force perfection upon your vacation.  You’re not going to Hawaii so you can tell people you went to Hawaii.  You’re not dragging your family on a cruise so you can have the best family picture in the Christmas card out of everybody who puts pictures in cards.  You’re not taking your 3 year old to Disneyland so you can jumpstart her love of Pirates in the Caribbean (true story).  This isn’t a show you’re putting on.  These are memories you’re building, and when your kids are grown, they’ll remember how they met ALL the princesses (even the elusive Princess Tiana).

They’ll remember walking across the highway to the beach instead of jumping right back into the car after lunch and going to the next stop.

And so will you.

Just say no.

The gracious refusal is a very useful skill to have.  I don’t think a day goes by when something isn’t put in front of me that I just don’t have the time or inclination to be a part of.  Saying “No, but thank you so much for asking” has saved me from over-committing myself more times than I can count.  It can be tricky, to decline to be included in some task or event.  It’s so tempting to give a reason.  “I can’t because I’m busy doing ABCDEFGHI.”  That opens the door for the downplaying of the level of commitment.  “Oh, it won’t take much time/effort/money! You know you can spare just a little OK THANKS.” and suddenly you’re on the hook.

We all have our baggage.  We may want to seem like we can handle it all, or we have unrealistic expectations of how thinly we can spread ourselves.  Or maybe we just want people to like us.  Whatever the reason for burying ourselves under things we said we’d do, the fact is that nobody has more than 24 hours in a day, and how you spend that time is 100% up to you.  Really.  No joke.  Even your shitty job is a choice you made.  If you’re like me, the reasons you have your job are more important to you than the job itself, and that’s OK.  I choose to be in my cubicle (oh, that just kills me to write that…) for as long as necessary.  It pays the bills, and that’s what we need it to do right now.

The things we agree to do in our spare time are what make us sane or crazy.  Some people thrive on being busy every night AND all weekend.  I say good for them.  If they can keep it together while being in a million activities and groups, rock on.  That ain’t me.  I need to recharge at the end of the day.  EVERY day.  I actually remember the first time I admitted to someone (in tears, over something stupid that got way out of hand) that “sometimes I get overwhelmed” so no, I wouldn’t be able to make it to their party that night.  That was a huge moment for me.  Because not only did I say something out loud that I had been afraid to admit even to myself, but my friend’s response was SO AWESOME (she’s a Ninja Mom, so I shouldn’t have been surprised).  She’s this Super Volunteer whose kids are well-mannered and her Christmas cards always have such great pictures.  She was like “Oh, I totally understand!  Stay home, get some rest, we’ll get together soon!”.  And it was fine.  There was no judgement.  She didn’t think less of me for it.  She got it.

So here’s my rule.  Someone asks me to do/be/pay for/go to something I just don’t have room for.  “Oh, I can’t, I’m sorry, but thank you for asking.”  The ball is in their court.  They can either be awesome like my friend and realize that everyone can’t do everything.  OR, they can try to pitch some guilt into the equation.  Ouch.  Guilt is hard.  They “only” need “one more person” or some such nonsense for their whatever-it-is to be perfect.  That’s their issue, not yours.  It’s not your job to make stuff perfect.

What are your priorities?  I have a pretty good idea of what mine are.  Family is number 1, and anything I need to do for my family comes first.  What we NEED to do for our families can be anything.   I need to keep the house picked up because it’s easier for my daughter to run around pretending she’s Tinker Bell if  there isn’t a bunch of stuff all over the floor.  I need to stay on top of laundry because clean T-shirts and towels make Mr Incredible happy.  I need to read before bed because it helps me relax and sleep better, and EVERYBODY wins if I’m well-rested.

Nobody else can say “Oh, you don’t need to do that for your family, you should do this other thing for me instead.”   Nobody would DARE say that.  When someone puts their own over-commitments (come on, you know they’re over-committed too…) ahead of your priorities, that makes it easy for any guilt they throw in to be completely negated.  You’re welcome.

I leave you with this Great Moment In Time Management.  There are naked male bottoms, and, ahem, suggestive references.  But Empress Nympho knows her limits, and she knows how to say “No.”

One Extra Thing

I like the idea of One Extra Thing.  No matter what you’re doing, chances are, you are able to tack One Extra Thing onto the end of it.  It may be as simple as tossing some fresh flowers into your cart as you head to the check-out at the grocery store, or putting the bathroom rugs in the dryer on low to get rid of the lint and hair and crud freshen them up.  One Extra Thing is the cherry on the cake that makes it just a little bit better with not a lot of extra effort.

I have One Extra Thing as a category of its own on my cleaning schedule.  Every (almost) day, in every room, I take a lap and straighten it up, and then there’s one more thing to do, that will take hardly any time at all but it’s still important and will make a difference.  Some days I go off the grid and decide that the patio can wait but the cabinet under my bathroom sink cannot, so my One Extra Thing changes, and that’s fine.  Because One Extra Thing does not make or break the whole process.  It’s extra.  See?  Awesome.

What I like about One Extra Thing (enough to capitalize it!) is that it makes me feel like I’m doing well enough to do just a little more than the minimum.  Some days, the minimum (or less…) is all that happens, and that’s cool, but on the days when there’s one more minute to do something?  Doing something makes me feel like “Oh yeah, I got this.”  And then the next day I get into my car and there aren’t any Cheerios stuck to the windows.  It’s the little things, the little Extra things, that are delightful, yes?  YES.

One Extra Thing becomes a habit.  If you do it enough, you don’t even have to think about it.  It just happens, in unexpected ways (not just in housecleaning, because there’s more to life than a shiny toilet).  It means that on a nice day when you find yourself cutting out of work early, you swing by daycare and pick up the kid, and instead of going straight home to start the regular evening routine, your Extra Thing becomes stopping at the park for half an hour and becoming the Best Mom In The World.  It means that when you finally make a hair appointment that’s months overdue, you say “I’d also like some highlights” because highlights?  are totally Extra.  And they are worth it.

So what are your Extra Things?  Take a minute, think about what you’ve got going on, and I bet you can come up with some stuff that has been put off, and while it isn’t a big deal, it will make a difference in the long term once it’s taken care of.  These can be fun (like highlights!) or practical (cleaning out the freezer, which takes five minutes, for real, so just do it already OK?), to be performed as a solo or as an ensemble.  One Extra Thing really does matter.

Five Things That Will Make You Feel Like You Cleaned Your Entire House

Shortcuts are a big part of my day.  I’m talking about actual timesavers.  I’m talking about things that, when I do them, something significant gets done in notably less time.  And while that which lurks underneath the shiny surface is important, sometimes, all we have time for is maintenance of the shiny surface.  To that end, I’ve been thinking (because I’m like that…) about easy things that take little time and effort that make a big difference in how clean my house feels.

1.   Dust your TV

How many hours a day week do you spend squinting through an inch of dust while catching up on your stories?  Does your significant other write love notes on your TV screen?  Was the last person who cleaned any part of the TV actually your cat walking past it who just happened to swipe a bit of crud off with her tail?  Swiffer dusters are perfect for this.  Swiff swiff swiff done.

2.  Clean Your Bathroom Mirror!

You don’t even have to clean the whole mirror–just the part in front of your sink where you brush your teeth.  YEAH.  You know what I’m talking about.  Get some Windex (or, you can make me extra happy and use your  homemade cleaner…) and a paper towel.  One minute later, you have a sparkly-clean bathroom.

Not my actual bathroom…

 Bonus points if you take your still-damp paper towel and wipe down the counter.  You know you need to.

3.  Sweep your front walk!

I don’t know about you, but 99% of the time, we enter our house through the garage, and we never hardly ever see what the actual front porch looks like.  When I do take a minute to open the front door, chances are, I see that work needs to be done.  Dead stuff on plants, fliers from businesses who don’t think “No Soliciting” applies to them, the detritus that follows a windstorm… yuck!

Go get your broom.  Take two minutes, sweep the leaves and dirt and (if you live next to my next door neighbor who doesn’t address his pigeon issue…) and feathers.  Ta da.  Look how pretty that is!

4.  Flip Your Couch Cushions

This one may be a bit more involving.  At my house, when I flip the cushions, I also need to vacuum the undersides as well as the surface upon which they sit, where all cookie crumbs seem to end up.  But it’s worth it.  Our couch is 13 years old.  It’s SO comfortable.  And about once a month, all of the slouching we do on it rubs off, and it starts slouching too.  Sad couch!  Rotate the seatcushions, fluff up the ones in back.  Voila.  Better.

5.  Make Your Bed!  

I sound like your mom, don’t I?  Because I know I sound like *my* mom when I say that.  I think my entire childhood was spent Not Making My Bed.  And then when I moved out and there was nobody to get on my case about it, my bed remained unmade in a clear declaration of my own independence.  And it looked like hell.  My dorm room, my room at the sorority house, my bedroom in my shitty college apartment?  All looked. like. hell.

When I bought my own house, suddenly there was a sense of pride in ownership, rather than in my foot-stamping insistence that Ain’t Nobody Gonna Make Me Make My Bed.  Most days, my bed gets made.  It takes two minutes and it makes a huge difference.

First, smooth the fitted sheet.  One sweep of the arm, tug the corners.  Done.

Second, pull up the flat sheet.  Yank it, so it’s snug.  Done.

Third, pull up any blankets and the comforter.  One sweep of the arm to smooth it.

Fourth, pick your pillows up off the floor.  DONE.

And suddenly your bedroom is no longer a bedroom but part of a MASTER SUITE.

Any one of these small things will make a room look better.  All of them?  Totally clean house!  Company ready!

I’ll have to check my calendar…

I live and die by calendars and schedules.  The only reason I was willing to upgrade to a smartphone is that I could link it to my Google calendar (oh, how I love the Google…).  The day I learned to link it to my Google Docs changed my life.

I have a spreadsheet that is my weekly housecleaning schedule.

Full disclosure:

  1. Everything does not always happen.  I do skip days. The goal is not to skip too many in a row, and then jump back in when I can.
  2. I have a cleaning lady who comes in once a month.  She goes over the entire house, but what I really depend on her for is thorough vacuuming  and cleaning the showers/bathtubs.  Everything else she does is a bonus that ultimately saves me probably 6 hours a month.  Worth it.

I start with the Room Checklist :  I deal with whatever biggest pile/eyesore/fire catches my eye.  Think about your kitchen, for example.  Somewhere in it, is a pile that never quite goes away.  Once a week, I deal with that stupid pile.  Next I take a lap–I start at one end and work my way around, putting things back where they go, dusting, wiping off, tidying up.  No big whoop.

Daily is the minutiae that if it doesn’t get done at least 90% of the time, other stuff piles up behind it.  Worst case scenarios include:  If the dishwasher is full of clean dishes, the sink gets full of dirty dishes, the counter gets full of newer dirty dishes, and I can’t cook a meal so we eat cereal or get takeout.  If the cedar chest at the foot of the bed has a pile of clean unfolded laundry on it, then dryer has clean dry laundry in it, the washer has clean wet laundry in it, the basket has dirty laundry in it, and the hamper has old dirty laundry in it, and Boo has no Princess Panties to wear, which is NOT A GOOD SITUATION..

Special Projects is my Big Picture, Longer Term To-Do List.  This is the stuff that when I have a minute (which does happen if I stay on top of the other two lists…) I can take care of.

The best part of all of this is that it’s maybe half an hour out of my day.  Tops. None of it is a crazy deep cleaning/scrubbing tile with a toothbrush sort of task. It’s maintenance.  Maintenance is good.

Calendars are also a fantastic way to stay ahead of the game.  Mr. Incredible is trained willing to email me his doctors appointments and work travel information, and I just add them to the calendar whenever I get them.  I color code his travel, so if he’s gone for several consecutive days (or weeks, yikes) then I can quickly get an idea of what my own time is going to look like.

I also use the calendar to keep track of what I’ve made for dinner–a couple of times a week I take a few minutes to make a quick 5PM appointment that’s just whatever we had (i.e. “pork chops, rice, salad, steamed veggies”).  This serves 2 purposes for me:  I don’t accidentally make the same thing twice in three days (it’s happened…) and after a month, I have a month’s worth of meal planning ready for next month.  Everybody wins!

Not everybody works this way, I know, but it’s kept me sane.  When I was pregnant with Boo, I knew  we were going to need a way to keep ourselves organized.  This helps me do that.