Small Space. Big Life.

Want an easier, saner, more efficient life? Become selectively anal-retentive.

I am not a fan of the very highly structured, since I don’t like to spend a lot of time or energy maintaining complicated or detailed routines or systems. But this morning, as I was unloading the dishwasher, I realized that I do have some highly detailed routines and systems that I use because they make my life easier, safer and more efficient. Others might call them “anal.” I call them useful. For example:

We load the dishwasher throughout the day and run it at night while we are in bed. In the morning I unload the dishwasher before breakfast. This routine is as close to set in stone as they come at our house. It gives us clean dishes for the day but also a place to quickly and easily put away dirty dishes –  and with our airline galley-sized kitchen, so small that I should have gone to flight-attendant school to learn how to maneuver in it —  that’s essential to being able to eat.

I realize that this is not in and of itself overly structured. But the way I load the dishwasher – specifically the utensils — yes, that is. I group them by type. All of our spoons go together in one compartment, all of our forks go together, and all of our butter knives go together. Cooking utensils have their own spots as well. Thus, I don’t have to hunt and peck through the clean silverware, getting my knuckles stabbed by forks, while I’m putting them away. It makes a mundane task easier and less challenging – which is a large part of the reason why the task gets done regularly, seeing as how I’m not very good at forcing myself to do unpleasant things (such as ironing, which is why we always look slightly rumpled).

How else might I apply selectively structured techniques for greater household ease and harmony? In the laundry, perhaps, where I sort laundry as it’s generated. We have two laundry baskets. One lives on our washer, and one on our dryer. The basket on the washer holds whites. The other holds everything else. It’s easy for me to see at a glance when we have enough laundry for a load, and the reduced sorting I have to do on laundry day makes the entire job, again, easier. In an ideal world we’d have a little more space in our laundry nook and I could have a four-bag system (whites, colors, darks and delicates) as well as room for a servant who excelled at ironing, but for now the two-basket/no servant system is the one we have space for. So why not optimize it?

I put gas in the car when it gets to ½ a tank or less. I never run the car below ¼ of a tank, ever. I used to, all the time, and then I’d be running late to an appointment somewhere and realized I had to go get gas immediately, and invariably the gas station near us would have a SUV with a “Heal the Ocean” sticker on it (kind of ironic, given that one of the main threats to our local ocean are the oil drilling platforms just offshore) blocking two of the three pumps – and do you know how long it takes to fill up a SUV? A LONG time, especially if they don’t follow my “fill-it-up-at-half-a-tank” dictum and have to pump upwards of 20 gallons of gas into that beast.  After waiting forever to be able to squeeze my (not much smaller or more efficient) minivan in to the pump and get gas, I’d be even later to my appointment – and even more stressed. Filling up at half a tank means I stop for gas more frequently, but it’s more convenient. If I see that SUV, I keep driving and fill up the next time I’m cruising by, which is probably going to be the next day.  For public transportation users, the equivalent might be using a pre-paid pass card so that you never have to worry about having exact change or the right fare.

An added benefit to the get-gas-at-half-a-tank system is that when we have to evacuate I know we have at least half a tank and can get out of town if need be. Don’t think you’ll ever have to evacuate? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either. We’ll talk about that later.

Other examples in what, written down, appears to be a pantheon of neurotic organization:

  • I label everything that goes into the freezer that doesn’t already have its own label. It takes a few extra seconds to slap a label on something, but it also saves us from the freezer roulette dinners we used to have (where you get something out to thaw that you think is chili and it turns out to be spaghetti sauce, which turns out to pair poorly with cornbread).
  • Every month I put $5 for parking in each car. We pay to park so infrequently that I usually am caught off-guard when I do actually have to pay – and I hate doing the “search of shame” at the tollbooth, when I frantically dig through my purse, the floor mats, the kids’ toy box, to scrape enough change together to pay the parking fee.
  • Keeping a stack of cleaning cloths by the front door in wet weather, so we can wipe the dog’s paws off when she comes in from outside. It’s true that keeping my children from creating a huge mud pit in the lawn right by the front door would also keep a lot of mud from getting made and, hence, tracked in, but I’m sticking to the battles I can win, OK?
  • Using a triplicate backup system for essential staples. For example, I have a tube of toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and two under the sink. When I use up the one in the cabinet and replace it with one from under the sink, I put toothpaste on my shopping list and restock. This means that even if there’s a disruption in our normal shopping patterns we’ll still have the essentials – toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, the organic jarred salsa from Costco that my son eats on just about everything  – covered.

I realize, of course, that walking too far down this road risks getting to Obsessive-Compulsive Land, where light switches are disinfected daily and incoming mail is sorted by size and color prior to being opened. But used judiciously, a little High Structure can really smooth out the bumps in the road. Good candidates for Selective Anal Retentive Routines include:

  • Things you do so infrequently that you often forget you need to do them (pay for parking);
  • Things that cause more hassle to fix than they do to prevent (muddy paws, empty gas tanks);
  • Things that streamline daily processes (loading the dishwasher a specific way, pre-sorting laundry);
  • Things that allow you to incorporate preparedness into your daily life (filling the car with gas, keeping backups of critical supplies).

Others are going to react to these routines if you make them public (and the simple act of doing them will take care of that for you). In my experience, there are two likely outcomes. Either they’ll say “What a great idea! I never thought of that,” and you will feel like a genius and perhaps a bit (or really) smug, or they’ll say “isn’t that kind of, um, anal?” and you will feel a little bit foolish or defensive. And then you will try to tell them why it’s really not that anal and what a great idea it is and how it makes your life so much easier and they will not get it at all because if they were going to get it they would have gotten it already and would have said “What a great idea!” So you will feel even more foolish for having tried to explain what should have been self-evident.

You might feel like this for quite a while, but then one day you will see them, stressed and frustrated, and they will tell you a twenty-minute story about how some idiot with a huge SUV blocked access to all the gas pumps on their side of the gas station and how they were incredibly late because they had to get gas immediately, and why is it that the only vehicles you see a Heal the Ocean bumper sticker on are huge SUVs?

And then you will feel like a genius and perhaps a bit (or really) smug.


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