30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6)

There are no large plea­sures in life, only small ones,” a much older boyfriend once pro­nounced to an impres­sion­able 25-year-old me. He paused for a moment, reflect­ing. “Except maybe the Prado or the Louvre.”

I’ve already been to both,” I ventured.

Well.…” He raised his hands as if to say: “So, that’s that!”

The older I get, the more I take his point. Not that there aren’t large plea­sures and that they aren’t, well plea­sur­able. But the qual­ity of our days, and thus our lives, is largely deter­mined by small things.

Mulling over pos­si­ble Life Exper­i­ments for June, I hit on the idea of doing one (small) nice thing for myself each day. Given that June 1—today—is my birth­day, this seems espe­cially apt. Plus it’s also in line with my ongo­ing quest for more play­ful­ness and fun.

Last month’s Life Exper­i­ment involved Doing Less. With­out going into a lot of detail, I’ll say that, strictly speak­ing, you could count it as a fail­ure. In fact, if my goal had been to Do More, you might say I’d triumphed.

But this isn’t the whole story. More and more, I see these Life Exper­i­ments as plant­ing seeds. The fruit they bear won’t nec­es­sar­ily be within a pre­dictable time frame. This hit home for me a few weeks back when I signed up for a dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy class that starts next week. As reg­u­lar read­ers may recall, my Photo-a-Day exper­i­ment lasted just a few days. But now, here I am return­ing to the ter­rain I staked out then. The seed I planted is tak­ing root, just not the way I planned.

When I sat down to the make the list of 30 small things, I had the idea of small pleasures—a mas­sage, a din­ner out with friends, new run­ning shoes—but as I started to write, what leaped to mind were small nag­ging tasks. Exhibit A would be the sweater with a but­ton that’s been wait­ing to be sewn back on for some­thing like 10 years. (In a novel this might be a metaphor, but in my life, it’s fact.)

In Life Coach-land such tasks-in-waiting are known as “tol­er­a­tions” and are said to be con­stant drains on our store of energy. In any case, I’m pretty sure I’d feel bet­ter with a shorter list. Mas­sages and restau­rant din­ners are nice, but so is cre­at­ing order. My hypoth­e­sis: Get­ting that but­ton sewn back will make me unrea­son­ably happy.

Life Exper­i­ment #6: Do once small nice thing for your­self each day—which may mean plea­sur­able in the doing but could also mean plea­sur­able in the sense of feeling-happier-having-done-it. (Hi there, sweater and button!)

Hello, Life Experiment #3 (plus an update).

laser cut cubes

In this Year of Exper­i­ments, the past month was about Cre­at­ing Order, and in fact, some order has been cre­ated, though–as The Orga­nizer warned me there might be, lots remains to be done.

Here’s what my base­ment looked like then.

The Orga­nizer takes stock










Here’s what it looks like now:

As they say in 12-step pro­grams, it’s about progress not perfection.

That being said, here is what I’ve found: Order is calm­ing. Order is free­ing. Order is some­thing I want. Order is also, as one friend noted, always a work-in-progress. It’s a habit, not a goal.

As it hap­pens, the same is also true of the act of forg­ing human connections–the focus of Life Exper­i­ment #1, where I con­nected (or re-connected) with 30 peo­ple over the course of Jan­u­ary. Much more to be said about that, but for now, just to note that this prac­tice also under­scored for me the impor­tance of habit.

So here’s the bot­tom line: where I started envi­sion­ing this Year of Exper­i­ments as con­sec­u­tive, I’m increas­ingly start­ing to see it as cumu­la­tive.  Spend­ing some time–in this case, a month–consciously focus­ing on a qual­ity that enriches my life is sort of like plant­ing a seed.

And now for Life Exper­i­ment #3, which is about see­ing more (and see­ing dif­fer­ently) and fram­ing (and re-framing).  Or to put it in con­crete terms, dur­ing this month, I’ll be tak­ing at least one pho­to­graph each day.

There are a bunch of rea­sons I set­tled on this par­tic­u­lar Life Experiment.

For one thing, I got a new cam­era a few months back, and I’ve yet to really use it. For another–and this is a big one–I’ve just started co-teaching a photo and writ­ing work­shop for fos­ter kids and am awed by what I’m read­ing and see­ing. I won’t say much more about that–their sto­ries are theirs–but this is another way to con­nect with what they’re doing.

I also know from past expe­ri­ence that using a cam­era opens up the world in new and unex­pected ways. Years ago, I spent some sum­mer weeks at the Maine Pho­to­graphic Work­shops (now Maine Media Work­shops), and I recall a per­va­sive sense of height­ened aware­ness. Thought it occurs to me that this may not be say­ing much–I am some­one whose boyfriend once shaved his mus­tache for her as a birth­day gift (It was not my favorite look) and I failed to notice. That is until he told me that the mys­te­ri­ous gift he’d been hint­ing at for hours was “right under your nose–or rather under my nose.”

So clearly, I can use some prac­tice with this see­ing thing. As always, you’re wel­come to join me. I hope that you will.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stair­way land­ing between two floors of the fam­ily home.

What pro­voked the melt­down? Once the furi­ous howls sub­sided, he choked out the fol­low­ing expla­na­tion: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and down­stairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Espe­cially, dur­ing the past few weeks, as I’ve got­ten increas­ingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m con­flicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such con­flicts are espe­cially com­mon in times of tran­si­tion, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m jug­gling free­lance writ­ing with blog­ging, lead­ing a writ­ing work­shop for fos­ter kids, and look­ing for more pay­ing work. I’m also try­ing to orga­nize my home—a task that’s espe­cially press­ing since my lease is up in a cou­ple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speak­ing of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal mat­ters relat­ing to the Plan B Nation trade­mark, pre­pare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be hap­pier!

Not sur­pris­ingly, such inter­nal con­flicts are fer­tile breed­ing grounds for dis­sat­is­fac­tion. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Eliz­a­beth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his stu­dents to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were des­tined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound obser­va­tion, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such con­flicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move for­ward while engaged in an inter­nal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bul­let (sorry!), I do have a few strate­gies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resort­ing.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m shar­ing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Con­sider the sit­u­a­tion. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed deci­sion, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nag­ging sense that what­ever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep mov­ing forwards

Some years back, at a sim­i­lar point of over­whelm, I remarked to a wildly effi­cient friend that I was tempted to give in and sim­ply do noth­ing at all.  He gave me a hor­ri­fied look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies mad­ness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A jour­ney of 1,000 miles begins with a sin­gle step, as the old say­ing goes.  For me, track­ing progress is an essen­tial strat­egy here.

3. Exer­cise

Sadly, I’m not one of those peo­ple who enjoys the actual expe­ri­ence of exer­cise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much bet­ter after I’ve got­ten mov­ing that I’m deter­mined to do bet­ter in mak­ing it a reg­u­lar part of my life. In the mean­time, as they say in 12-step pro­grams: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruth­less (or as ruth­less as you can be) about say­ing No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Sim­ply put, give your­self a break. Recent research sug­gests that self-compassion is more effec­tive than self-esteem in fos­ter­ing con­tent­ment. Rec­og­nize that you’re in a tough sit­u­a­tion and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in fig­ur­ing out how to go about this, Bud­dhist teacher and psy­chol­o­gist Tara Brach’s Rad­i­cal Accep­tance is a great start­ing point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anx­ious feel­ing. Then I remind myself I’ve writ­ten this post. And that’s, at least, a start.

5 things I learned when The Organizer paid a visit

The Orga­nizer takes stock

My friend Heidi is a pro­fes­sional orga­nizer, and when she heard that this month’s Life Exper­i­ment is all about Cre­at­ing Order, she offered to get me started.

I jumped at the opportunity.

She arrived promptly at 8:15 am, full of reas­sur­ances. “I don’t make judg­ments,” she said, more than once. “It’s about you and how you live.  My work is very per­sonal, and every­thing is confidential.”

I’d done lit­tle to pre­pare for the visit; Heidi wanted to see what things looked like when I hadn’t made a spe­cial effort. Before we got to work, I took her on a quick top-to-bottom tour—from my clothes– and book-strewn bed­room to my chaotic base­ment, a potter’s field for old elec­tron­ics, work files, and memorabilia.

Over the next two hours, we made sub­stan­tial inroads, far more than I would have thought pos­si­ble for such a short ses­sion. We started out by going through piles on my din­ing room table, where I’d gath­ered some of my most chal­leng­ing small orga­ni­za­tion projects.

For exam­ple: What do you do with that col­lec­tion of ran­dom screws, nails, and other mys­te­ri­ous hard­ware items?

Answer: Your throw it out.

Now this might not be the case for some­one who is handy and does lots of home improve­ment projects, but as soon as Heidi told me I could pitch this stuff, I felt instant relief.

And, as she explained it, that’s a big part of what a pro­fes­sional orga­nizer does: Gives you per­mis­sion to toss stuff that you can’t seem to toss on your own.  (Or, as she diplo­mat­i­cally put it, sur­vey­ing my liv­ing room: “It’s my job to get you to think about things, so this sort of sit­u­a­tion doesn’t ensue.”)

That being said, Heidi cer­tainly didn’t pres­sure me; she mainly just asked questions.

Why do you need the instruc­tions to your blender?” she inquired.

I skimmed through the lit­tle book­let. “Look! There are recipes! I’m going to put this with my recipe books.”

She gave me a long look. “Really?” she said. Really?

After that she let it go, except for one final obser­va­tion. “I’ll bet you never go to that blender thing to make a recipe out of it. (Chances are she’s entirely right, but for now, I’m still keep­ing it.)

This isn’t the first time I’ve made an effort to be more orga­nized (over the years, as I recounted in Salon, I’ve spent thou­sands of dol­lars on stor­age), and some of Heidi’s tips—such as the adage to “put like with like”—were already famil­iar to me.

But other truths came as either novel insights or much-needed reminders. For the record, here they are:

1. No one wants your old cas­sette tapes.

No one. Absolutely no one.  After a rejec­tion from Good­will, I’d been plan­ning to move on. Heidi told me not to bother.

2. You don’t have to be like your parents

I’m sort of like my mother,” I explained, as I dithered over whether to dis­card some melted-down can­dle remnants.

Heidi’s matter-of-fact response: “You don’t have to be.”

3.  Just because some­thing was once pretty doesn’t mean it still is.

I loved this,” I said wist­fully, gaz­ing at my one-time favorite Vera Bradley tote bag, now torn and stained.

I won­dered if I should keep it—until Heidi’s voice broke in. “You can’t donate that,” she said prac­ti­cally. “You have to throw it away.”

A scummy can­dle holder with a flo­ral pat­tern elicited a sim­i­lar response.

Me: “It’s sort of pretty.”

Heidi: “Not so much anymore.”

Bonus tip:  If some­thing has sen­ti­men­tal value but no cur­rent use, think of tak­ing a dig­i­tal photo and dis­card­ing the object itself.

4.  Projects take less time than you think they will …

It’s going to take me hours just to go through that,” I said ges­tur­ing to a pile of boxes on the stair­way land­ing as we emerged from the basement.

Heidi stopped me right there. “Why?” she said.

Oh, you know,” I said vaguely. “Lots of ran­dom things in var­i­ous places, have to go through it all.”

Well, let’s just see,” said Heidi.

And you know what? Most of those boxes were empty, except for pack­ing mate­ri­als. After five or 10 min­utes, only a small stack of papers and binders remained to be sorted.

5.  Unless they take more

As she gath­ered up her things, prepar­ing to leave, Heidi said: “You know you have a lot of work to do, right?”

The words brought me back to earth. I’d felt like we’d accom­plished so much! And yet, this was just a beginning.

How long do you think the whole house will take?”

Well, it depends on how much time you spend but, maybe  … a month or so?”

Hap­pily, one month is exactly the length of my Cre­at­ing Order Life Exper­i­ment. Three days down, 27 to go. Yes, I’m just get­ting started.

Spe­cial offer: Heidi—whose full name is Heidi Robinson—is offer­ing a two-hour orga­niz­ing ses­sion for $50—that’s 50% off her usual rate—to the first five Northampton-area Plan B Nation read­ers to con­tact her. You can reach her by phone at 413–219-7433 or email her at heidilisa43@yahoo.com.

Life Experiment #2: Creating Order

Order is every­thing,” my friend Melissa once remarked, more than two decades ago.

When an off­hand com­ment sticks in your mind, there’s likely a very good rea­son why, and in this case, that rea­son is read­ily appar­ent every­where I look.

I am liv­ing in chaos.

It is a fer­tile, vibrant chaos, to be sure—fascinating books, scrib­bled notes, Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, piles of col­or­ful clothes, fliers for events I’d like to attend, bowls of local apples and onions, recipes I’d like to make. At times, I view the mess as akin to compost—materials that make my days both richer and more nourishing.

But mostly it’s a way bet­ter metaphor than it is a way of life. It’s frus­trat­ing, and it’s time-consuming, and some­times it’s even expen­sive. (This morn­ing, I searched for some books about orga­ni­za­tion that I’d picked up years ago. Tellingly, I couldn’t find them.)

Which is why February’s Life Exper­i­ment will be about Cre­at­ing Order.

As some of you may recall, I’ve dubbed 2012 my Year of Exper­i­ments. Each month, I’m embark­ing on a new set of activ­i­ties around a par­tic­u­lar theme. At the end of each month, I’ll give some thought to how my life has shifted and share the results.

In par­tic­u­lar, I’m inter­ested in how activ­i­ties that are appar­ently unre­lated affect and inform each other. Here, I think of the old say­ing “Trust in God and clean house.” (Not to be con­fused with another old say­ing: “Trust in God and keep your pow­der dry.”) How will bring­ing order to my liv­ing space change my life in other ways? Stay tuned for the answer.

Or bet­ter yet, join me! Make Feb­ru­ary your month of cre­at­ing order—or pick a Life Exper­i­ment of your own and watch to see how things change.

As a reminder, here are my sug­gested guide­lines for Life Exper­i­ments. (I described these in more detail in a pre­vi­ous post.):

1.  Select process goals, not out­come goals

2. Select activ­i­ties that are directly related to your larger goals

3. Pick activ­i­ties that are sat­is­fy­ing (and even fun) in themselves.

And now, here it is, my per­sonal Life Exper­i­ment #2: Every day I will take one or more spe­cific and quan­tifi­able actions aimed at cre­at­ing order at home. (Exam­ples: I will take 10 arti­cles of cloth­ing to Good­will. I will spend an hour sort­ing through office papers.)

I’ll keep myself account­able by track­ing the actions I take each day. (In case you’re won­der­ing, an update on January’s Life Exper­i­ment is shortly forthcoming.)


Order, orga­ni­za­tion, neatness—these are not qual­i­ties that come nat­u­rally to me. I will never be that per­son who, as hap­pi­ness maven Gretchen Rubin once did, explains my com­pat­i­bil­ity with a mate in terms of a shared affin­ity for order, (“He’ll  say ‘Let’s take 20 min­utes and tidy up,’” Rubin told the New York Times, in describ­ing her husband.)

I do, how­ever, think that I can do bet­ter.  Maybe a lot bet­ter.  I plan to give it a shot.