Cleaning Hack: Have Less Stuff

Can I let you in on a little secret? Want to know one of the easiest ways to have a neat(er) house? Have less stuff.

Intuitive, yes, but harder to implement than you might imagine.

One of my favourite ways to unwind is to declutter a space – the kitchen, a closet, my purse. I really do enjoy puttering around, putting things back in place, organizing what we have, and finding new homes (friends, donations, garbage) for superfluous, unneeded, or broken items.

I haven’t always been this way. My teenage and college rooms left much to be desired; I wasn’t much bothered by piles of paper on my desk or clothes draped haphazardly over chairs.

Some of my adult enthusiasm could be a form of prolonged nesting that comes with having children and buying a home (the sheer volume of “stuff” I’m responsible for has grown exponentially since adding tiny humans to the mix). But I think another reason is at play: Overall, I now have less unnecessary stuff.

There are never-ending hacks for organizing and rearranging a space for maximal efficiency. But at the end of the day, the easiest way to have a clean, uncluttered space is to have less stuff. Every time I help a particular child in our house clean up their room, I’m reminded of this. There are baskets full of paper, shelves full of books, yardsale knickknacks in every nook and cranny. Even when it’s fully organized, it still looks messy (to me). On a sliding scale of children’s rooms, I know it’s not that bad. But there is still so. much. stuff. Incredibly, it all gets used or has sentimental value so, for the most part, it stays. This particular child doesn’t seem to notice the volume of paraphernalia, so I’ve learned to let it bother me less (I’ve also learned to close the door more; being out of sight really does help push some things out of mind).

A friend of mine – a friend whose basement is full of neatly organized totes from which she can pull, with shocking accuracy, a particular toy set belonging to her now twenty-something daughter – once commented to my Mom: “Elisabeth’s not very sentimental is she.”

It’s true – I didn’t save a single baby outfit from either of my children. I have gotten rid of most of the things my own mother saved for me from my childhood. But I’d still argue with my friend’s assessment. I am deeply sentimental, but I choose to keep the nostalgia alive in photos (I make enormous photo books every year), traditions (food, music, decorations), and memories. We are a family of adventure, not possessions.

One year for Christmas we “gave” the kids a night in a hotel as their main gift. Not a single ounce of current clutter in my house is related to this trip, but we have memories of the hotel waterslide, the shoe-shine service, and the old-fashioned machine churning out free popcorn in the lobby at bedtime. We remember how we met an old friend along the way at a quirky cafe for delicious muffins, drove through an evening snow squall to get supper, and watched all the Hotel Transylvania movies while piled atop comfy hotel beds.

Last year for a birthday, we bought passes to a local ski hill. While skiing does necessitate gear (we could rent, I guess, but cha-ching), once it’s organized in our storage room it doesn’t really factor into house clutter).

We definitely “do” gifts – but most of these are consumables (food, bath products, clothing) or long-term toy investments (like LEGO)

Material things can hold deep significance and I love bringing items into our home that are beautiful and useful – things that improve our wellbeing and the function of our living spaces.

There’s nothing wrong with hacking and storing and buying all the fancy organizational doohickeys you want (and I do hack and store and, occasionally, buy some of those doohickeys myself). But the simple math of it is this: the less we buy, the less we own – the less we own, the less we have to manage, store, and maintain. Having less stuff will, in general, not only make our homes feel lighter and more streamlined, our lives may follow suit. In the words of Gretchen Rubin: “Outer order, inner calm.” I couldn’t agree more.

One night over Christmas Break we told the kids they had to play downstairs when they woke up in the morning and they had to do LEGO (quiet, less chance of fighting) while we slept in for a change. For the next week of mornings they wowed us with Christmas-themed LEGO creations.

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  • I got the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week; aside from a sore arm, the only downside was utter exhaustion on Days #2 & 3. Bless his heart, John took the kidlets on an all-morning yardsale extravaganza. I told a friend what they were doing and she said: “I hope they find some good stuff.” Too which I retorted: “Define good.” The kids, one in particular, have a penchant for weaseling their father into purchasing items (or “treasures” as they prefer to label the assortment of trinkets that trickle home) on these excursions. They actually do have a great eye, I can’t deny that. I also can’t deny the over-flowing bookshelves and toy box. Pleasantly they did find “good” stuff – some ski poles for me, a great new outdoor chair set, and I spent the morning with my feet up (literally), sipping a delicious bulletproof coffee and revelling in the quiet.
  • I got a blog comment from SHU, blogger extraordinaire and co-host of one of my favourite podcasts, Best of Both Worlds. Epically cool.
  • Last Friday was a day off school and the kids and I were joined by friends at a local hidden gem: Pirate’s Cove. Discovered by my husband Father’s Day 2020 (a day which just so happened to coincide with a mental breakdown on my part where I couldn’t fathom helping with childcare…so he spent the entirety of Father’s Day being on solo-parenting duty, ironically enough), we’ve returned to Pirate’s Cove over and over. Being out of plain sight – I drove by the spot regularly, unawares, for years – gives it an edge of whimsy. The surrounding beach is also covered in tidal pools. Together the kids happily explored – and fell into – various tidal pools discovering mussels, crabs, and catching lots of little amphipods.
Tide pool explorers
The kids first visit to Pirate’s Cove back in June 2020.

Love of the Week: John. Wonderful husband, father, friend and an all-around great guy.

Life highlight: celebrating our 10th anniversary in Paris. Trip of a lifetime!

It’s Father’s Day this weekend, and I’m so thankful to be navigating this parenting labyrinth – and life in general – with this wonderful man by my side. Forget love of the week, this guy is the love of my life!

It will be a low-key weekend, but we’re anxiously anticipating a time (in the hopefully not-so-distant future) when we can steal away for a few days together sans kiddos.

We’ll be in the middle of a particularly tough day and one of us will just sigh and say: “Remember ____[insert trip without children in tow]?” At this point I’d take a shanty in Timbuktu…

Looking forward to celebrating his role as an awesome Papa with some delicious food – takeout sushi and pecan pie will most certainly be involved – and some local adventuring. We’ve also got tickets to visit George’s Island, recently opened up to the public. Lighthouses, a ferry, and picnicking on a sunny day – sounds hard to beat.

How Our Return to School Reminds Me of a Jewish Folk Tale

2020 and 2021 have been historic years. From lockdown restrictions to career changes and the intense personal trauma and grief so many people have faced, I’m more than happy to put this period behind us.

But there have been lots of lessons learned amidst the challenges and I was recently struck by a parallel I noticed with the story arc from one of our favourite children’s books.

All winter we shuffled along; schools and churches and businesses were open, but everything felt harder and less spontaneous. I complained more than I’d care to admit. I missed my family. I was tired of sending my kids to after-school lessons and clubs in masks. I wanted this “new normal” to be abnormal again. And then came May. Variant cases skyrocketed in our province; with positive tests rising each day, we entered a month-long lockdown. Schools were closed, non-essential businesses shuttered and travel was heavily restricted.

I wasn’t prepared for how hard this second lockdown felt. Masks are familiar and not being able to visit family when we want to feels sadly routine. But something felt different this time; having friends and family living in regions with re-opening strategies (my sister sent pictures from Disney when we were slogging through another round of Math via Google Meet), all felt extra discouraging and isolating.

And then the glorious news that a combination of high vaccination rates, along with the success of our lockdown measures at curbing the spread of COVID, was paving the way for the re-opening of schools. All winter I grumbled about school lunches – the hassle and mess and time. I have never been so happy to pack a school lunchbox as I was June 2nd. Walking the kids to school for their first day back, I couldn’t shake the jubilant feeling that I was living out the major plot points of A Squash and a Squeeze

In A Squash and a Squeeze, the first book by duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, we follow the trials and tribulations of a grey-haired lady who bemoans the size of her house, which she calls “a squash and a squeeze.” She consults a wise rabbi-like man (this picture book is based on a traditional Jewish folk tale), who tells her to bring her farm animals into the home. She does just that, eventually welcoming a hen, goat, pig and other creatures that squawk and moo. You can imagine the scene – chaotic, loud, messy. Her already-small home shrinks before her eyes, but she continues undaunted, though acutely aware of the dwindling real estate: “It was teeny for four and it’s weeny for five.”

When the wise old man finally tells her to bring all the animals out again, that home she disliked – the one that felt like a “squash and a squeeze”- feels palatial.

A month of screen shares, Math worksheets, Playdoh creations, and constant snack requests was exhausting. But I’d been complaining of the pressures of juggling work and life pre-lockdown. How free my schedule feels now; how happy I am to pack lunches and look at homework folders and set a morning alarm. Life feels spacious and light when I compare it to our own “squash and a squeeze.”

It helps to remember that perspective can often change our reality. And inspiration for that perspective can come from the most unlikely of sources, including the children’s section of your local library.

Here’s A Thought: Give Yourself Permission to Quit

I’ve already given us permission to eat ice cream for supper, ditch the gimmicky toothpaste, and feed our kids more cereal (if that would make life easier). Now I’m going to suggest we think about giving ourselves permission to quit.

Years ago, at a local craft market, I came across a piece of art that used rocks and sea glass to create a whimsical and minimalistic (but recognizable) scene. I set out to recreate something similar on my own – not only would I save money, but I’d also be able to give personalized art to people about whom I cared deeply. I started the creative process – with enthusiasm.

First step: sourcing materials. While visiting my parent’s beloved lakeside house a few weeks later, I went to a nearby island and collected a baggie full of suitable rocks. My family has been visiting this island for over thirty years, so these water-weathered pebbles had deep nostalgic significance. Off to a good start! I pulled together a collection of sea glass sourced during various coastal adventures and prepared for the next stage: planning.

I generally enjoy creative projects but this time I was just not “feeling it.” I wanted to be engaged and loved the idea of the project, but felt no actual motivation to keep going.

So I put the rocks in a drawer and told myself: I’ll tackle this next year for Christmas. It was just a little baggie, but every time I opened the drawer I felt a stab of guilt, mixed with dread. I’d need to get special glue and a shadow-box frame. Then I’d need to think of sentimental scenes for each recipient. What extra materials would I need to create a canoe out of tiny pieces of driftwood for my Dad? And those beach-loving friends might appreciate an abstract campfire, right? I wanted this to be perfect.

Then, one random weekday while I was doing a load of laundry, I thought of those rocks. Again. Several Christmases had passed me by since I collected them from the shoreline of Goat Island, but not a week went by that I didn’t see (or at least think of) them. I stopped sorting whites from darks and headed straight to my desk; seconds later the entire contents of the bag were at the bottom of a garbage can.

I texted a friend in triumph. Truth was, no one was forcing me to complete this project. No one even knew I was planning it; there was zero external pressure. And, frankly, after a few years of this…I’d had enough internal pressure. So I gave myself permission to quit. It felt exhilarating. 

Rules can be arbitrary (especially the ones we set for ourselves) and projects can be misaligned with our interests and time. As Laura Vanderkam writes: “Possibilities are infinite. Time is not. You are always choosing. Choose wisely.

It’s great to set high expectations and give ourselves room to grow through challenge and novelty. But other times? We need to cut ourselves some slack, and that might include granting ourselves permission to quit. This could be a job, training for a marathon, or stepping back from a toxic friendship; maybe you need to quit the PTA committee or say “no” to the expectation you have to host the entire family on Christmas Day (even Uncle Steve’s crazed Rottweiler). Or, maybe you’ll just give yourself permission to throw out a baggie of rocks. You are an adult – and that comes with a lot more autonomy than you may think.

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  • I didn’t even make it through my towering book stack. In a fit of desperation, I put my giant to-read pile into the library-return bag…unread. It feels like treason, but it needed to be done. In the last few years, I’ve gotten better about abandoning books after the first 50 pages or so, but these were mostly books I knew I would enjoy and had wanted to read. That’s one of the (many, many) great things about books – they’ll wait until I’m ready.
  • So, I was on a podcast. Kind of. I got a text from a friend this week saying: “I just heard you on Best of Both Worlds.” What?! In this week’s episode, Laura and Sarah answered my listener question. Aside from the trauma of hearing a recording of myself, it was a fun experience. My question shows up around the 30-minute mark.
  • Remember me mentioning the thought of picking out new running shoes is enough to drive me crazy; well, I ended buying FOUR pairs of sneakers (and counting) last Saturday. I’ve made a table and am evaluating each one on various categories, before assigning an overall comfort score. Each sporting store I visited encouraged me to take them for a test run, so I’ve been doing 20 minutes in each set of sneakers on our treadmill. For the amount of time I spend on my feet each day, it does make sense to maximize this purchase…or so I’m telling myself.
  • I went out for supper with one of my closest friends (the wise one I mentioned) this week. It was my first outdoor dining experience since the lockdown lifted and it was lovely. No kids, a great friend, wonderful conversation, and delicious food (I didn’t prepare). Per tradition, I treat this friend to supper each year around her birthday; somehow the predictability of it makes us both happier. No dithering about what gift to buy and, if we want to shake things up a bit, we can always vary the restaurant (though we rarely do). Supper was followed by some fun and productive thrifting. I get such a thrill reinventing – or at least rejuvenating – my wardrobe in an inexpensive, environmentally-friendly way.

Love(s) of the Week.

#1. Outdoor dining.

S’mores – outdoor dining at its finest.

I had my love of the week picked out (see below), but then just had to add another because eating outside really has been such a lovely addition to my life.

With the kids back in school, I’ve been eating my lunch under our apple tree. While the blooms have passed for the year, it provides great shade. I don’t use a device – no audiobooks or browsing the news. Just me in a comfy chair, enjoying my lunch break.

We picnic as a family regularly, but it’s a different (more relaxing) experience when I’m dining solo. No one is spilling their water or asking for seconds of fruit salad…and there is no bickering, complaining, food throwing or other unpleasant sibling interactions (not that my kids ever participate in these sorts of behaviours).

#2: Oat Milk

I’ve struggled with lactose intolerance since my daughter was born over a decade ago. After a lifetime of consuming milk (daily) and enjoying ice cream, cheesecake, and other delectable treats with immunity, overnight I had to rethink my diet.

It’s been a relatively seamless shift. I’m not much bothered by avoiding dairy, and when I do consume it – accidentally or on purpose – I’m lucky enough to not have any major issues.

In terms of milk substitutes, I’ve tried them all: soy, cashew, almond. For anything requiring cream I’ve made the shift to full-fat coconut milk but, for everything else, I’m a full-blown convert to oat milk. My favourite brand: Suzie’s from Costco, made with only two ingredients (oats and water, thankfully). Delicious on cereal, in baked goods, and when added to tea and coffee.

She Can Still Be a Doctor – Sage Advice I Return to Often

When my daughter was born life turned upside down – literally. Delivery required far more medical intervention than I had expected and my vision of motherhood – rocking a contented baby, having hours just melt away while I watched her delicate little features in sweet slumber – couldn’t have been further from reality.

I’d pour a bowl of cereal at 8 AM and, if I was lucky, eat it by noon. The first few months were a haze of sleepless nights and days filled with tears (hers and mine) while we navigated infections, colic, and endless feeding challenges.

The biggest sticking point: I’d always planned to nurse my children. It was healthy, economical, convenient. It was also what a good mother would do. Not only did I want to do it, I was inundated by messaging that encouraged, championed, and elevated this aspect of mothering. I was also surrounded by mothers that could do it. Baby-hour at the library was basically a lesson in how to feed and nurture your little one naturally; you could find me wallowing in a corner covertly wielding a bottle.

I dealt with these things – as one does – by cycling through stages of denial, anger, depression, and pseudo acceptance (there wasn’t much bargaining to do; she was 2 months old after all). I researched techniques, bought supplements, and consulted experts, before officially conceding defeat.

Spoiler alert: she got older, things got easier. By 9 months she was pure joy – full of all the spunk and personality we cherish today; happy and chubby and practically perfect in every way. Though the crying was behind us, guilt lingered. And then a new friend entered my life and managed to shift my entire perspective with one sentence.

This friend and I were out for an evening walk. Somehow I had circled back to discussions of feeling less-than because of my inability to naturally deliver and feed my (now toddler) daughter. This friend paused for a minute and said, wisely: “You know, Elisabeth, she can still be a doctor.”

What she meant – and what I needed to hear – was that the future was unwritten. The unexpected complications of the past, which were completely out of my control, didn’t mean my daughter was doomed to a life of illness, missed opportunities, and continual disadvantages. No. If she wanted, she could still be a doctor. Or a stay-at-home mother. Or a physicist. Or an artist. Or anything else her determined self wants to pursue.

When my son was born several years later, I met with a lactation consultant, did all the right things, and gave it my all for a week. When the nurse told me, gently, it simply wasn’t working…I cried. It was sad and hard and disappointing. But, I also knew: he can still be a doctor. Or a pro-surfer. Or an electrician. Or a teacher, or a financial analyst, or a stay-at-home dad, or a playwright. The sky is the limit. It really is – after all, he could be an astronaut.

Don’t Quote Me: What Would This Look Like If It Were Easy?

Sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy. I’m my own worst enemy. If there is a way to complicate a situation, I will find it.

For many of us, the majority of our time is focussed on maximizing – a situation, financial expenditures, time. Indeed, for some, life has become one giant experiment constantly being tinkered with as we’re coached to improve, iterate, and embrace the challenge. We channel our inner Sheryl Sandberg and “lean-in.” If life doesn’t feel overwhelming, surely we’re doing something wrong?

The “easy” way can seem like a trap.

For example, I’ll follow a mental path that goes a little something like this: “If I give feed the kids cereal for supper one night…then I’ll become someone who feeds my kids cereal for supper every night.” Intellectually I know that’s false. My kids eat cereal for supper a handful of times each year; far too infrequently, I’m sure they would claim. They do not spontaneously combust these evenings. They do not wake in the night complaining of hunger pains. Child services does not knock on my door and declare me an unfit mother. In short, the kids are just fine. Literally nothing bad happens.

Self-discipline and hard work are great, and I’m not advocating for laziness, but sometimes we just need to cut ourselves some slack. Several years ago I read Tim Ferris’ Tribe of Mentors. It’s a compilation of “wisdom” from a broad cross-section of creative, entrepreneurial and athletic types. The quote that stuck in my psyche:

What would this look like if it were easy?

Tim Ferris

While the quote had more to do with existential questions of purpose, trajectory and, for Tim Ferris, a self-declared mid-life crisis, I think there is reason to apply this principle to smaller aspects of daily life. I can ask myself – would it make my life easier if I:

  • Put on a movie when I’m rushing to meet a work deadline and the kids are climbing the walls (mine literally do this, in the hallway, and find it quite a lark to touch the ceiling)?
  • Had everyone use the same shampoo and toothpaste to make shopping, organization and general hygiene more convenient?
  • Put the clothes in the dryer instead of hanging them on the line to dry?
  • Served supper on paper plates, made the dinner party a potluck, or ordered in take-out for Thanksgiving dinner?
  • Said no to that evening meeting that could be handled via e-mail in the morning?
  • Bought everyone on my Christmas list the same gift (instead of brainstorming and shopping for hours to find a different “perfect” gift for everyone)?

Or what if I: hired someone to deep-clean my house before company arrived for the holidays, started working from home every Friday, upgraded my computer to a 3-monitor setup, or made a single recipe for my lunches all week. Easier doesn’t mean lazy; a 3-monitor setup will make me more productive and efficient. I like the word “easy” because it feels more whimsical – and less clinical – than some terminology often associated with productivity.

An important step toward finding an easier way: identifying the problem – whether that’s a mid-life crisis, a long commute, or the frustration of having six different shampoo bottles in the shower.

When I wanted to start a website, I was overwhelmed with options. Platforms, aesthetics, hosting, fonts.

Question: What would this look like if it were easy? Answer: Having someone I already know and trust take the lead on the project.

Minutes later I had a software developer I’ve been working with for almost a decade agree to get things off the ground for me. No research, no struggling to do things all by myself.

Life is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s important to embrace the challenge, push ourselves to excel, and expect more from ourselves. A willingness to embrace those qualities is how my husband and I co-founded two businesses and why I received research scholarships and completed a Master’s degree. It’s why I take the time to cook most meals from scratch and why I don’t feed my kids cereal for supper every night. But, sometimes we can avoid unnecessary worry and stress by asking: What would this look like if it were easy? The answers might be surprising.

But don’t quote me.

Productivity Hack: Find Your Reset Button(s)

If you’re stagnating with work, trying to (productively) fill a short window of time before you leave the house, or just want to feel refreshed, it’s helpful to have a go-to task (or tasks in my case) that serve as a purposeful reset.

I’ve settled on a trio of related activities: using the washroom, brushing my teeth, and refilling my water bottle. It feels productive and healthy; plus, brushing my teeth with mint toothpaste is refreshing and gives a little boost to my mood and energy levels. 

If that reset doesn’t hit the mark, what about:

  • lighting a candle
  • walking around the block
  • doing a few minutes of deep breathing exercises
  • watering/pruning your potted plants
  • making a cup of coffee or herbal tea
  • doing a minute each of a: wall sit, plank, and child’s pose
  • reading a few pages from a book of poetry
  • texting a friend
  • writing in a journal
  • sweeping the floor or wiping down bathroom counters

I’ll run through this reset before I head out the door to do errands, between meetings, when I’ve hit a mid-afternoon slump, or when it’s time to meet the kids at the bus stop. In addition to giving me a break from responsibilities and clearly marking transition points in the day, once I’ve taken care of these basic maintenance/self-care tasks, I’m less likely to need to interrupt future work or leisure activities. I won’t frantically have to look for a washroom at the grocery store or wonder if I have spinach in my teeth during that pitch to investors.

And drinking more water, well, that’s rarely a bad thing.