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REAL SIMPLE Simplify Your Life will teach you how to master the little things in your life, make the most of your time, learn how to let go, and so much more. Over three chapters, titled "Essential Joy," "A Streamlined Space," and "Me Time Made Simple," you will learn that the smallest things will make you happy, 20 storage strategies to make life less stressful, and the single best advice for your heart, your bones, your immunity, your diet, and more.
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Simplify Your Life


essential joy

The Smallest Things Will Make You Happy

The secrets to getting more joy out of your days.

Spread Too Thin?

How to regain control when you’re expected to do so much.

“Help, in Its Many Forms, Can Yield Bountiful Fruits”

What you learn when you accept a friendly offer of assistance.

What Ever Happened to Boundaries?

From social media to Zoom, our privacy is being invaded.

It Feels Good to Be Frugal

Many of us are spending less—and discovering we don’t mind the changes.

Why Are Little Decisions So Hard?

The problem may lie in the abundance of choices you face.

a streamlined space

Less Is More

Four women who downsized discuss their motivations, challenges, and rewards.

How the Organizers Organize

Pro tips for whipping your rooms and closets into shape.

20 Storage Strategies to Make Life Less Stressful

Follow these hacks, and bring instant order to your home.

How to Ruthlessly Edit Your Life

Make peace with every “keep it or toss it” decision.

Let Go of the Things, Hold on to Their Meanings

An archaeological approach to clearing out a house.

End the Chore Wars

Here’s your guide to drafting kids into the fight against mess.

Degunk Your Devices

Great ways to clean electronics.

me time made simple

If You Do One Thing for Your Health…

We’ve got the single best advice for your heart, your bones, your immunity, your diet, and more.

The Sleep Commandments

Thou shalt not toss and turn all night…if you prep properly for bed.

Yoga Stretches That Melt Muscle Tension

These basic poses target stress in your neck, back, and hips.

Bare-Minimum Beauty

Spend less time, use fewer products. Get the same glow.

Just Move!

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you can get some exercise out of it.

Super Simple Meals

Recipes for three fast, fresh, and nourishing dinners.

The Last Word




The Smallest Things Will Make You Happy

It’s the little mome; nts that bring real joy, according to happiness researchers. From chatting up a stranger on the bus to gawking at clouds, here are easy ways to get your fill.


SURE, THE PURSUIT of happiness is guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, but the Founders couldn’t promise that we’d know the right way to go about that pursuit. Those juicy rewards we think of as the happiness jackpot—a prestigious promotion, a new car, a winning lottery ticket? “They make us happy temporarily, but the feeling doesn’t last as long as we’d expect,” says Laurie Santos, PhD, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University.

Joy wanes naturally thanks to a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. “That’s a fancy way of saying we get used to stuff, even great stuff,” says Santos, whose popular happiness class at Yale has been adapted into a Coursera program called “The Science of Well-Being.” “You buy a new house, and it’s cool for a little while, but then it becomes normal and it’s just your house.”

More sustainable happiness lies not in those big exhilarating events but in the everyday moments that connect us to others, foster compassion and gratitude, and help us see ourselves as part of a larger whole. That feeling takes effort, says Jay Kumar, PhD, author of Science of a Happy Brain: Thriving in the Age of Anger, Anxiety and “Our brains aren’t wired to seek happiness, they’re wired to look for threats as a survival strategy,” he explains. To overcome that built-in negativity bias, you have to actively register the good moments. And by doing so routinely, you can rewire your brain to be more upbeat overall.

Think of happy living as a daily practice—a scavenger hunt for “small joy. It’s something that you begin doing deliberately but becomes more automatic. Start with these eight science-proven ways to find joy in the most ordinary of days.

Greet a stranger in an elevator.

Or in a dog park. Or on the bus or train. Several years ago, researchers asked random people entering a busy coffee shop to do one of two things: have a friendly interaction with the barista or make the coffee-buying transaction as brief and efficient as possible. During interviews with participants as they left the shop, the researchers discovered that those who smiled, made eye contact, and had a brief interaction with the barista were in a better mood than people who sped through. “Humans have a fundamental need to belong, to feel accepted and integrated into our communities—and having pleasant interactions with strangers fills that need,” says Iris Lok, a doctoral candidate who worked on the study. If you intentionally avoid engaging with people you don’t know for fear a friendly foray might be rebuffed, there’s good news: Most people are more receptive than you’d think. “In one study, researchers asked people taking public transit—not known as the friendliest setting—to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and nearly everyone responded positively,” says Lok. Research shows that making eye contact and greeting strangers can bolster your sense of belonging and happiness—and give their mood a lift too.

Imagine you’ve lost something or someone you love.

You may be thinking, “Wait, what?” Stay with us. Negative visualization is an old-school happiness-boosting technique that dates back to the stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, says Santos, and modern science has validated its effectiveness. In one study, researchers found that people who wrote about the various ways in which a positive event might never have happened were happier afterward than those who wrote about how a positive event came to occur. In a similar study, folks who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner said they were more satisfied with their relationships after the exercise than those who wrote about how they met their partner. One reason negative visualization is uplifting: It fosters gratitude and appreciation for the good things in your life, and gratitude reliably promotes happiness. “When you imagine you’ve lost things you value—your job, your spouse, your friends—it also helps you see that life is impermanent and recognize how fortunate you are for what you have in the moment,” says Santos, who used the technique when she sprained her ankle last year and couldn’t walk for a few days. “I started thinking about the time I broke my kneecap and was out of commission for six months, which made me appreciate what I could still do and lifted my mood,” she says.

Knock off a menial task.

In a seminal study over a decade ago, researchers from Harvard Business School asked 238 employees at seven companies to respond to an end-of-day email survey for four months. After combing through nearly 12,000 diary entries, the research team made a revolutionary finding: When participants made progress on their work projects, they reported more positive emotions. “Even small steps forward can help us feel great because progress bolsters self-efficacy—it gives us the sense that we can manage tasks, situations, and challenges that come our way, however momentous or trivial they might be,” says Teresa Amabile, PhD, coauthor of the study and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. You can put that idea into practice every day by setting small achievable goals, then recognizing and celebrating each accomplishment—even if the celebration is nothing more than a silent pat on your own back, says Amabile. Keep a checklist in Notes on your computer or smartphone, and mark off each thing as you do it. For a bigger benefit, connect with each task’s underlying meaning. “If you love your dogs and value the joy they bring to your life, remind yourself of that fact when you’re feeding them,” says Amabile. Just like that, a menial chore becomes meaningful, mood-lifting work.

If you love your dogs and value the joy they bring, remind yourself of that when you’re feeding them. Just like that, a menial chore becomes meaningful, mood-lifting work.

Daydream about having superpowers.

Sound silly? It’s estimated that we spend nearly half our waking lives allowing our minds to wander, and for the most part it makes us less happy, because we’re fretting about the future or chewing over something unpleasant from the past. (The title of a well-known study on the topic is “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”) But new research published in the journal Emotion shows that if you think of a heartwarming memory or spin a playful fantasy, the act of getting lost in thought can bring you joy. It’s called thinking for pleasure. In a recent study, one group of subjects were instructed to write down eight things they’d enjoy thinking about when they had some free time—they were given prompts, like the memory of a first kiss, a vacation they were looking forward to, or imagining they have superpowers. A second group was told to think for pleasure but didn’t receive any examples of topics. And a third group was directed to spend their free moments planning what they’d be doing over the next 48 hours. When the researchers compared the groups’ results, they found that thinking for pleasure without examples was more enjoyable and meaningful than planning, but thinking for pleasure with examples was the most enjoyable and meaningful. So jot down some happy topics, such as funny things your cat does or cities you hope to visit one day, and when you need a lift, think of one of them. “With a little practice, you can get better at enjoying your own thoughts,” says Erin Westgate, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida and lead author of the study. “There’s a profound pleasure to finding yourself deeply lost in thought. It can enrich the fabric of your everyday life.”

Find little things that make you go, “Wow.”

You’ve probably heard that awe-inducing experiences have a slew of benefits. To review: Awe can decrease stress, make us kinder and more generous, increase compassion and altruism, and help us feel less strapped for time. It can also enhance well-being, according to University of California, Berkeley research. And you don’t have to see the northern lights or the pyramids of Giza to feel this jaw-dropping emotion. Everything from fluffy clouds to chirping birds can bring a sensation of joy. “All you have to do is notice the small wonders in your everyday life, whether it’s a leaf changing color or the monumental size of skyscrapers or a stranger holding a door for someone or doing another act of kindness,” says Jonah Paquette, PsyD, author of Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More “Just thinking about the unlikelihood of human existence can make you feel a sense of awe.” For a quick hit of “Whoa!”right now, try this: Look around your immediate environment and identify all the things that would have been mind-blowing to someone 20 or 250 years ago—from your smartphone or robot vacuum to the toilet and toothbrush. “It can be uplifting to see modern culture through that lens,” Paquette says. “When you take your blinders off, these awe-inducing moments are everywhere.”

Everything from fluffy clouds to chirping birds can bring a sense of wonder and joy.

Grab that $6 grocery-store bouquet.

There’s a reason we woo a romantic prospect with a bouquet and bring flowers to people who are in the hospital. “Our brains evolved to associate bright colors with abundance and bounty, and the sight of flowers can boost dopamine and serotonin, the brain’s pleasure chemicals,” says Kumar. Rutgers University researchers conducted a series of studies showing just how powerful flowers can be. In the first study, 147 women were given either a bouquet, a fruit basket, or a candle as thanks for participating in the study, which they were told was looking at normal daily moods. When the researchers interviewed participants three days later, only those who’d received flowers reported an increase in positive emotions. In the second study, the researchers gave either a single Gerber daisy or a pen to 122 people in an elevator. Both men and women who received the flowers were more likely to smile, to stand closer to the flower giver (at a “social distance” as opposed to an “impersonal distance”), and to initiate conversation. And a third study with 113 people revealed that receiving flowers not only lifted moods but also improved memory. Kumar says that flowers’ effects are partly due to the uplift we get from nature in general. It can even take the form of inexpensive tulips from the supermarket or hydrangeas you picked in your yard. “Even the simple act of having a flower or nature scene as your screensaver can trick the brain into feeling happier and calmer,” says Kumar.

Give $5 to a cause you believe in.

You may know that volunteering your time helps promote happiness. But giving money to organizations whose work dovetails with your values can give you a significant lift too, says Jeannie Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University. “In our research on philanthropic giving, which includes 10,775 people who we’ve followed over time, we’ve found that charitable giving makes us happy,” says Sager. “Regardless of the size of the gift, the act of giving promotes joy and well-being.” In fact, giving money to others is associated with more happiness than spending it on yourself. If you’re going through a time when money is tight, you can benefit from prior generosity. “Just thinking about donations you’ve given in the past creates joy, especially if you think of the good the donation might have done,” says Sager.

Treat yourself as if you’re your best friend.

Most of us find it easy to be compassionate with people we love. But when it comes to turning that warmth and kindness on ourselves, well, it’s not so easy. “Human beings are imperfect. But we often forget that and beat ourselves up for every fault and fumble,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power and The cure for all that self-criticism: self-compassion. In one study, Neff found that people who wrote themselves a self-compassionate letter every day for seven days not only felt better for the week they did the exercise but also had a happiness boost for six months afterward. It may sound awkward, but starting a habit of self-compassion couldn’t be simpler. Just think about a time a friend was struggling and what you said and did to help. Then do those same things for yourself. Simpler still, take 10 seconds to put your hands over your heart or wrap your arms around yourself and tell yourself everything is going to be OK. “Soothing touch calms you by increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing the sympathetic fight-or-flight branch,” says Neff. “It makes you feel cared for and safe.” Kindness, whether directed at a friend or ourselves, is one of the surest ways to make us happy.

Spread Too Thin?

If everyone wants something from you (and wants it yesterday!), don’t despair: There’s a way to get back control.


HOW MANY TIMES lately have you noticed that your conversations are peppered with phrases like “crazy busy” and “too busy to breathe”?

Rachel Burton knows that stretched-thin sensation a little too well. She’s a writer, teacher, wife, and mom of a teenager in New York City with—as you might guess—a pretty hectic life. And then she let her good intentions get the better of her. “I wanted to serve my community and said yes to a spot on our apartment building’s board. It’s a huge time-suck: constant three-hour meetings filled with all kinds of fighting,” she says. “It’s a nightmare, and I cannot wait for it to be over. I am at my breaking point!”

That “What have I gotten myself into now?” feeling is going around. We all want our days to be rich and purposeful. And we all have obligations. So we shepherd our kids and seek quality time with our partners. We lean in at work and pursue our passion projects. We take care of aging parents. We perfect our Firefly Pose, fill the fridge with sourdough starter…and then we (OK, I) agree to cohost a fund-raiser. When did our lives become some sort of Hunger Games for the Harried?

This is your body on nonstop stress

When our load is extra heavy on all fronts, we end up immersed in daily stress. Some stress is unavoidable, but when you start tipping over into that frantic, panicky feeling on a regular basis, it’s time to see if you can take anything off your plate. Stress triggers production of the hormone cortisol, which jacks up your heart rate and blood pressure. It can also cause an array of pains (hello, achy neck!) and GI symptoms, as well as anxiety, depression, and irritability. Which don’t exactly set you up for loving your life.

Feeling constantly pushed to the brink can also contribute to other issues, such as unhealthy eating and an increased likelihood of chronic disease (high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, to name a frightening few). One Finnish study found that being under major stress shortens a woman’s life expectancy by 2.3 years.

Here’s how to take control when life is crazy on all fronts.

Hack your way out of an overload episode

We all hit crunch time now and then. If you’re slammed with a tidal wave of to-do’s, Chris Bailey, productivity consultant and author of has some advice for staying afloat.

“Productivity isn’t about accomplishing more and more, faster and faster. It’s about making space to do what’s important,” he says. Here, a trio of his best tactics to manage your time better:

• First, go with your peak energy times. “If on the weekend you tend to get up at your usual weekday time, you’re likely to be an early bird. If you wake up 90 minutes or so later than you do during the week, you’re more of a night owl. Use those times of alertness and efficiency to get things done,” he advises.

• “Follow the rule of three,” says Bailey. “Every morning ask yourself, ‘What are the three most important things to accomplish today?’ Then focus on those things. You may need a list of three things for work and three things for your home life, but don’t toggle between more than that.” Staying focused = staying productive.

• Block notifications. Doing one thing at a time concentrates your focus and enhances efficiency. But your smartphone and all those cute critters on Instagram and pasta recipes on TikTok can beckon. “We get a hit of dopamine (a neurotransmitter in our brain that’s connected with pleasure) when we experience something new, like looking at social media,” he says. “We keep clicking around, trying to keep that stimulation level high and get more dopamine flowing, but then we’re not bringing our full self to the task at hand.” Simply turning off notifications is one of the biggest productivity-boosters out there.

Accept that you’re not superhuman

You may believe you should—or even must—say yes to anything asked of you. “Many women are raised to always say yes. A generation ago, a woman who worked, kept house, and raised kids was called a supermom. Now, you’re just a mom,” says Karen Karbo, author of Yeah, No. Not Happening.: How I Found Happiness Swearing Off Self-Improvement and Saying F*ck It All—and How You Can “But the worst thing you can do is realize you have the habit of always saying yes and then beat yourself up about it!”

Instead, protect your own bandwidth—and your free time. “Being over-anythinged is bad,” says Amelia Nagoski, coauthor of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress “All of us deserve time, care, delicious food, safety, sleep, and compassion. You deserve it right now, just as you are, without needing to earn it or prove that you deserve it.” Let that thought encourage you to be a little stingier with saying, “Sure, I can help.”

Steal breathing space

When someone asks if you can join a committee, or pitch in on a rush project at work, or do the flowers for a baby shower, you may feel you have to answer right then and there. This is a trap that Laura Baer, a creative director in Bloomfield, New Jersey, has fallen into—and often. “Instead of taking the time to think things through, I tend to get swept up by invitations or by events I see on social media and jump right in. Last year I volunteered in an instant for an incredibly involved, time-consuming project that really had no payoff for me, though I tried to convince myself I did a good deed,” she says. “A new goal for me is to commit less to scheduled events and have more free time to see where it takes me.”

How exactly to accomplish that? Go ahead and stall a little. “Learn to say, ‘Let me check my calendar,’ even if it’s something you really want to do,” says Karbo. “This will give you time to review your schedule and check in with yourself about how much you have going on.” It will be easier not to overextend yourself when you’re not responding on the spot or feeling excited or obligated.

Learn to say, “Let me check my calendar,” even if it’s something you want to do. This will give you time to check in with yourself about how much you have going on.

Find your way to say no

The next step is summoning your inner toddler and saying no. Get comfortable with declining requests without feeling like a slacker. You don’t need an alibi or major excuse. Molly Boxer, a nonprofit professional in Southold, New York, says, “I used to come up with excuses, but that takes more energy and the person on the receiving end can often see through them. I simply say, ‘No thanks’ unapologetically and send my best. It’s important to listen to yourself and protect yourself. Everyone will be happier for it.”

For Karbo, her catchphrase for declining requests—“Yeah, no. Not happening”—became the title of her book. “The ‘yeah’ is the ‘Yes, I hear you,’ and the ‘no’ is ‘It’s not going to work for me.’ The ‘not happening’ gives you a little humor, a bit of time to touch the other person’s arm and smile,” she says. “So a friend says, ‘C’mon and train for a half-marathon with me,’ and it’s ‘Yeah, no. Not happening, dude’” with a friendly smile.

Nobody wants to drop the ball, but it happens. Once, I volunteered for a community program that benefited kids with special needs. The onboarding stressed what a difference we’d make in a child’s life and the pride we should feel in our commitment. And proud I was…until about three weeks later, when I abruptly dropped out during an insanely busy moment at work (a certain micromanaging boss played a role in this flake-out too). The feeling of failing others, of bailing on kids who need extra support, had me double-dipping into shame and self-loathing.

Give yourself a break

In truth, most of us will buckle under life’s pressures at some point. After all, there are only so many minutes in a day. And sometimes additional obligations we have no control over (a family emergency, for example, or a work crisis) land in our lap with no warning. So we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we have to bow out of a social obligation, or downsize our contribution to a community project. “You are going to let someone down,” says Nagoski. “But that’s OK. The world sets unmeetable goals, unrealistic expectations, and unceasing demands on all of us. If you’re doing as much as you healthfully can, then that’s enough.”

If you find yourself in a scenario where you have to pull back, heed this advice from Nagoski: “Explain that you are overextended—you thought you’d be able to participate or help, but it turns out you can’t and you’re really sorry. If you can contribute in a less-involved way or find someone else to help in your place, great—but you don’t have to.”

If the person is reasonable, they’ll understand. Even bosses want to prevent staff burnout. But what if you’re dealing with someone who is so stressed-out or self-absorbed they see only their side? “If they believe that you should burn yourself out to benefit them and their needs, this is a great time to remember that you aren’t obliged to sacrifice yourself at the altar of someone else’s convenience,” says Nagoski.

It’s often tricker to quiet that nagging voice in your head—the one that tells you you should never quit anything or let anyone down. Nagoski suggests you let those thoughts unspool to hear what’s under the anger (probably fear).

Then talk back to yourself. Sure, it may feel silly in the moment, but this exercise serves as a reminder that you’re a grown-up and know how to protect yourself.

Think of it this way: You are no good to anyone in your life if you’re running on fumes. By guarding your time, you’re doing the responsible thing.


Brigid Ransome Washington thought she could care for two babies and cook meals from scratch. Then a new friend showed up with a tray of pasta.

NOT TOO LONG AGO my husband, my then 2-year-old, and I were separated from our orderly life by a string of fitful events: a job loss, a book deal, and an unplanned pregnancy. The book deal I’d waited almost two years to secure seemingly arrived at the exact moment the pregnancy test strip turned pink. My Jamaican physics-PhD husband had just lost his well-paying tech job—and his skilled-worker visa along with it. I’ll never forget waddling my massively pregnant way into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and explaining to a kind government official that our marriage was as real—and raw—as they come.

Months later, a series of significant deliveries were made, a healthy baby girl topping the list. A green card. Blessedly, another job offer for my husband. And I delivered my cookbook to my publisher. We finally exhaled.

Less than a week after my C-section, I wanted to cook again. I missed the food, yes, but also the process: the calypso music I’d play in the kitchen, the aromas that hugged our home. I convinced myself it would be best for everyone if I cooked. But reality has a way of asserting itself.

My recovery was painful. A newish mom friend, Jessica, offered to bring me a meal. Typically, I’d politely decline such a gesture from a friend I only loosely knew, but my depletion was too real. She arrived a couple of hours later with flowers, precut fruit, and a tray of Costco ravioli lasagna that seemed to weigh more than our newborn. I looked at it with doubt in my eyes, thinking, “What is this unknown combination of cheese?” But as soon as that judgy thought took hold, both the baby and the toddler started to fuss. Mystery cheese and tomato sauce it would be.

I slid the tray into the oven, and as it heated, I felt the emotional salve that comes from accepting help. A meal doesn’t need to be handmade to make me feel whole. In that moment, I learned to be gentle with myself and embrace the “good enough,” because I was the only one wagging a finger at me.

From that tray of pasta, a core value emerged: Help, in its many forms—when genuinely offered and honestly accepted—can yield exceptionally bountiful fruits. Nowadays I buy at least one prepared-food item at Costco and gift it to our elderly neighbor, who lives alone. It’s a continuum I’m honored to embrace. And Jessica has become one of my most treasured friends.


What Ever Happened to Boundaries?

Your office = the dining room. A tutor peers at your messy home over Zoom. Friends post mortifying photos of you online. Privacy, please!


MY LIFE FELT like it was in a blender. It was a Tuesday morning, a remote learning day for my daughter with no preschool for my son.

I tried to work at my desk while keeping an ear on my daughter’s lessons. Late for a Zoom meeting, I rushed into the other room to set up the iPad for my son, slamming my toe on the coffee table and crumpling to the floor.

By 4 p.m. I still couldn’t pull leggings over my swollen foot. I heard my daughter talking to her remote piano teacher, a college student 850 miles away whose face was peering into our home. “My mom is still in her pajamas!”

Mom-shamed, I hobbled back to my bedroom, which also was my office, which was littered with clean unfolded laundry.

I had to face the truth: My boundaries had disappeared.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. Research conducted by software company Oracle and human resources research firm Workplace Intelligence found that 2020 was the most stressful year people have experienced in their working lives. Some 78 percent of people surveyed said that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health.

One lasting repercussion of the pandemic is that the way we work and live seems to have been permanently altered. Everything feels…blurred.

“Boundaries define our limits of personal space, dignity, and safety,” says Mariana Bockarova, PhD, a principal consultant at MBMD Consulting, a behavioral science firm in Toronto. During stressful and chaotic times we can no longer set our own limits, which makes us unhappy, she notes. “It’s natural to feel agitated and exhausted simply because we can’t enjoy the freedom of imposing our own boundaries.”

The most basic boundary is physical, a sense of comfort and security in our own per-sonal space. The ability to choose how we spend our time—working, with family or friends, or alone, exploring hobbies—also provides an important boundary. And just as significant are emotional boundaries—those details about our lives or emotions we may not feel comfortable sharing.

All three types are being pushed to the max in our everything-at-once world. Between the aftermath of the pandemic and our heavy mental load, it’s no wonder we feel scrambled. But experts say it’s essential to carve out some private space on all fronts.

What balance?

Technology has played a major role in the blurring of boundaries, says Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD, a professor of management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management. Cellphones and laptops make work portable, so we work during personal time and in “third places” other than work or home, like on a park bench, in a restaurant, or on vacation, according to Kossek.

Plus, let’s face it, we’re on tech for everything at all times. We answer school emails, book hair appointments through apps, check and reply to social media posts at all hours. We jump from texting a kid’s coach to say we’re running late to ordering a book for a birthday present to peeking at photos of a frenemy’s perfect night out.

And we’re working longer hours than ever. The workday has increased by an average of 48.5 minutes compared with before the pandemic, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

We’re on the clock more than ever: The workday has increased by almost an hour compared with before the pandemic.

Even if you enjoy the freedom that comes with being able to multitask, you want to do it on your own terms. These are ways to reclaim your breathing room.

Mark your territory

During the pandemic, physical boundaries collapsed (see: desk in the baby’s nursery). Even though times are shifting back to normal, remote work is here to stay, experts predict.

“When you’re physically located in the same place for work and home, you have to actively do things to keep those boundaries separate,” says Kristen Shockley, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. Designate a work area, even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom.

If you don’t have an office door to close, use a visual signal like headphones to let other family members know you need to focus. If your desk is in an open common area, like the living room, try to schedule video calls when the family won’t be rummaging for afterschool snacks.

It also helps to build in transitions to separate the various parts of your day. It could be as simple as going for a run before you log on to your work computer or first thing when you log off. Consider a “fake commute” like a short walk around the block to clear your head. “These transition times help keep worlds separate, which totally goes away when you’re like, ‘OK, I finished work, and two seconds later I’m back with my family,’” says Shockley.

At night, adds Kossek, always close your laptop and don’t sleep with your cellphone by your bed (to quash the temptation to check work email or Twitter at 3 a.m. when you can’t sleep).

Take your time

How we spend our time is integral to our sense of self. People with more free time are happier, healthier, and more productive than people who work more and make more money, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Positive

You need to shield your personal time from work spillage. Block out your calendar during lunchtime and after-hours so that meetings won’t be scheduled then, recommends Bockarova. Clarify expectations with your supervisor about evening and weekend emails. “Ask about the norms around response times—do you really need to reply to an email that comes in at 9 p.m.?” says Shockley. Similarly, consider when you send emails. “Some places even suggest using a signature line like ‘I may have sent this email off-hours, but I do not expect a response until business hours,’” she says. That way you let colleagues and clients know you don’t mean to barge into their leisure time to get an answer on a work issue that could definitely wait.

Breathing room

If there are two of you working from home, it’s worth discussing what you each need in terms of private space.

“People whose partners respect their boundaries say they are more satisfied with their work-life balance,” Shockley says. In fact, some couples’ relationships actually benefitted during the pandemic because they were forced to constantly coordinate and communicate, she says. They had to make an effort not to schedule big meetings at the same time. They had to decide in advance who was going to take care of household chores and kids.

Hopefully our newfound ability to talk it out will usher in changes that relieve women from having to shoulder much of the mental load of running a household. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 women in the fields of academic science, engineering, and medicine, Kossek learned that the loss of work-family separation in heterosexual two-parent households was most acute for women. “We found that even if dad was home, the children would go right by him to the mom if they wanted something,” she says. “The gender roles were still very strong even with two-professional couples—only about 10 percent of men really shared the cooking, cleaning, and child care, and that left some women feeling stressed.”

That’s why it’s so important to renegotiate domestic tasks and establish new routines, Kossek says.

What if your kids constantly interrupt you while you are working? Let them know when they can come to you, says Shockley. “You need to say, ‘Here’s the time—emergencies aside—that we can talk about these things.’” Explain that just because you are home, it doesn’t mean you are available. Now that most kids aren’t in Zoom school anymore, this should be easier to implement than during peak pandemic.

Essentially, emphasizing boundaries can help preserve family time. Make rules like no cellphones at the table, or no iPads before 8 a.m. “It can be hard for everyone, says Kossek. “Technology is addictive.”

Share with intention

Having clear emotional boundaries regarding what and how much we’re willing to share makes us feel valued and respected. But for partners who spend a ton of time together, preserving that separation is tricky. “If you’re taking all your breaks together and having breakfast and lunch, do you really have anything to talk about at dinner?” asks Kossek. Consider structuring days like when you worked separately, agreeing to stick to work obligations and urgent home matters during the day and leaving household stuff and more intimate conversations for after-hours.

Regardless of how close you are, it’s absolutely OK to crave some space. “If you need a few moments alone, explain why that’s important to you,” says Bockarova. “Does it make you a better partner to spend some time alone and reflect?” Communicate so your partner knows what’s going on and to avoid misinterpretation and hurt feelings, she says.

But the real Wild West when it comes to emotional boundaries is social media. Unless you decide to not participate at all, much of it feels out of your control. Your college roommate posts an embarrassing old spring-break photo of you…and while you frantically try to untag yourself, your boss weighs in with a “wow face” emoji.

But the real Wild West when it comes to emotional boundaries is social media. Unless you decide to not participate at all, a lot of it feels out of your control.

Oh, for the days when those worlds could never collide! One tip from Shockley: Decide what kind of social media user you want to be. Are you going to be someone who puts everything out there, or do you prefer to decide who sees what? If it’s the latter case, reserve Facebook and Instagram for personal acquaintances and LinkedIn for work friends, for example. “If you’re segmenting, you’re more cognizant of managing what you say and where you say it,” Shockley points out. You might need to spend an hour cutting down your list of social media “friends” until just true pals remain. Does your junior-high boyfriend really need to know where you took your mom for Mother’s Day brunch? Probably not.

Sometimes a colleague or acquaintance might want to connect with you online but you don’t feel the same. Trust yourself. There’s a tactful way to sidestep this admittedly tricky situation. “If you don’t feel comfortable having someone on your social media,” says Bockarova, “decline the invitation, noting that your online presence is something you reserve only for family or close friends.”

Of course, complicated issues will still come up, like when your great-aunt posts photos of your son’s birthday party on Facebook. The reason it’s so upsetting is we know we are in charge of protecting our brood. “We want to have control over what we disclose about ourselves, and our kids are an extension of ourselves,” Shockley says. “When somebody does that without your permission—even if you don’t really care on the surface—you feel like, ‘They should have asked me.’”

Why do we like to have control over these seemingly insignificant things, like a happy photo? Because when we don’t, life feels unpredictable. And that just creates more stress. “You wonder what will be shared online next, and it makes you uneasy,” Shockley says. The solution is to be up-front. Tell the family member who overstepped: “Most of the time I am fine with you posting whatever you want regarding our family, but I’d appreciate if you would give me a heads-up beforehand, especially if it involves the children.”

And remember to exert control where you can: Facebook has a setting that lets you review a photo in which you are tagged before it posts to your timeline. You can also limit who sees it once it’s up.

Stick to your limits

A healthy separation between parts of our life gives us a sense of comfort and space. While the exact outlines look different for each person, in my case it means closing my door during work interviews, not bringing my phone to the dinner table—and staying far away from my daughter’s piano lessons.

It Feels Good to Be Frugal

Whether by necessity or choice, many of us are getting by on less—and discovering that being intentional about spending is an important part of self-care.


I WAS SCARED when we were all forced to grind to a halt in March 2020. My freelance income dried up, and my husband and I found ourselves carefully planning meals to make ends meet. But now that work has returned (something I’m grateful for every day), I’m still meal-planning down to the last cilantro leaf. Not because I have to, but because I like it. I like that my grocery bill is half what it used to be. I like that I rarely throw food away now. I like the nightly walks we take along the river more than the once-a-week dinners out we used to manage. And I like the little nest egg that’s been growing as we spend less.

The pressure to embrace frugality has been building: It’s estimated that these days it takes upward of $230,000 to raise one child to age 18 (not including college), while wages have remained largely stagnant—and disproportionately low for many millennials trying to adult while burdened with student debt. (In addition, there’s the painful reality that participating in our disposable economy results in filling landfills and oceans with yesterday’s fast fashion and plastic toys, causing a global existential threat.)

And then the pandemic happened. It may turn out to be a circuit breaker, says Annie Raser-Rowland, coauthor of The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything “A lot of people who didn’t lose income spent less—and found they could get by with far less shopping.”

As long as we bring in enough to cover the bills, being frugal feels healthy—like we’re taking care of ourselves. “Of course making money matters, but I’m suddenly seeing people realize they’ve been overvaluing possessions while undervaluing time with loved ones,” says Paco de Leon, founder of the Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm in Los Angeles, and author and illustrator of the book Finance for the “Or they realize they’ve been doing something unproductive just because it’s delightful.”

I’m suddenly seeing people realize they’ve been overvaluing possessions while undervaluing time with loved ones.

The question is: Will this attitude, this way of life, stick? Experts say that it can—if we shift our mindset about spending, saving, and what really makes us feel good.

TELL YOURSELF: Saving isn’t self-denial—it’s a crucial way to take care of yourself.

That’s what Erica, a single mom and filmmaker in New York City, discovered when she lost all her clients one brutal day early in the pandemic. “I had almost no savings and no income, bills coming in, and two kids relying on me,” she says. “At first it was embarrassing, but I dove in, watching every expense, figuring out how to get a forbearance on my mortgage, finding food that would stretch the farthest.”

Erica’s income is flowing again, but she hasn’t forgotten her financial ordeal, or how strong it made her feel to scrimp, strategize, and get through those hard times. “I’m proud of how we took care of ourselves, and I feel so much more in control now that I understand my finances better,” she says. “We will never return to our pre-Covid lifestyle of living paycheck to paycheck, taking Uber everywhere, and ordering takeout whenever we wanted. I now have the skills to build a buffer that will make our future much easier and less stressful.”

TELL YOURSELF: Spendy doesn’t equal special.

When Kristen, a lawyer in Minneapolis with two small children, found her usual dining spots closed, she and her family went exploring instead. “We walked around a beautiful grassy area near some of our favorite restaurants,” she says. “We loved it so much, we returned for an amazing family picnic, playing soccer, taking pictures, eating ice cream, and throwing rocks in the nearby lake. In pre-Covid times, we’d have just eaten lunch inside the restaurant and left.”

Like Kristen, my husband and I always took for granted that you spend a lot for experiences, particularly special ones—family outings, date nights and anniversaries, birthdays. But we recently discovered that dining out doesn’t compare to at-home Taco Night, when we gather in the kitchen to make our own salsa and guacamole. The new tradition includes candles and a playlist curated by one of the kids. It’s how we celebrated my college-age son’s birthday in the spring of 2020, because we had to. And this past spring, it was the first thing we did to celebrate his return. The cash we’ll save by staying in is a bonus, rather than the point.

TELL YOURSELF: Thoughtful spending connects you to your community.

Anna, who works in real estate for a large tech company outside San Francisco, used to buy almost everything her family needed from Amazon. “I’m short on time, it’s easy, and it’s cheaper,” she rationalized. Then, during lockdown, while looking for crafts to keep her girls busy, she noticed how much she missed the local stores down the block, and it hit her: Many of those shops might not survive. “It sunk in that I wanted those places around,” Anna says. “So I found their websites and ordered from them, and I started shopping locally and from small-business websites as much as I could. Things might have cost slightly more, but it was a richer, more satisfying experience.”

Dan Grady, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, finds that this topic of community is raised a lot in his conversations with patients. “The pandemic made it clear for the first time just how interconnected we are to that coffee shop or little card store we stop by.”

It’s one thing Elizabeth Willard Thames, creator of the financial-independence and simple-living blog Frugalwoods, loves most about the life she has built on a Vermont farm. “Because of our frugal ethos, I’ve made real connections with friends and neighbors,” she says. “We lend things to each other, pass down toys and clothes, and work together when the community needs something. In the process of reusing and sharing, we reduce the amount of waste in landfills.”

TELL YOURSELF: Spending feels fun at first—but the bills box you in.

As an attorney making six figures, Christine felt she could buy whatever caught her eye at Anthropologie. “It feels so good in the moment,” she says. “I’d tell myself, ‘I work so hard. I deserve this!’” When she left her job to become a full-time writer, Christine realized she’d been working so hard in order to pay for the car, the house, the stuff—and she never had time to do what really mattered to her. She began researching minimalism, founded the blog the Afrominimalist, and moved from a big house to a small condo (see page 36). “Now I am free—to create children’s books, to help build a policy institute for antiracism, to be a mom,” Christine says.

TELL YOURSELF: Being cheap makes life rich.

It’s a maxim that has come up again and again when I talk to women about money. Amanda in Fort Worth, Texas, whose family went down to one income just before the pandemic hit, says that instead of returning to a pricey bar, she’ll continue sipping date-night cocktails with her feet in the kiddie pool as her young son splashes around.

Sheryl, a designer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, formerly lived on takeout and never used her freezer for anything but gel packs. Now she loves making large pots of lentil stew, and she stocks the freezer with ziptop bags filled with it. “There is nothing more satisfying than knowing there’s always something for dinner,” she says.

Allison, a photographer in New York City, reports that the bike rides she and her husband go on almost every day serve as both couples therapy and exercise in one.

As for me, I’m still cooking meals with my kids—and writing down all the things that have made us feel good while spending less. I don’t want these ideas to slip away.

As author Raser-Rowland puts it, “Whatever we do, I hope we don’t lose the progress we’ve made toward understanding what being truly rich feels like.”

Why Are Little Decisions So Hard?

And how to make them (almost) easy


PATTY BRAHE of Long Island, New York, was standing in the produce section of her local gourmet supermarket when she found herself in a pickle over tomatoes. “There was an entire aisle of them,” says Brahe. Cherry, plum, heirloom, Campari. “It was overwhelming. They all looked the same, and the prices were all over the place.” Clueless as to which would work best with the dish she was making (a simple crudités platter), she spotted a fellow shopper eyeing the two-for-$5 cartons of cherry tomatoes. “She looked savvy, so I just got those. If I hadn’t copied her, I probably would have just left without any.”

While Brahe’s experience in aisle 1 may sound like a first-world problem, it’s emblematic of a modern-day phenomenon affecting anyone who has ever been in the position to buy sunscreen, chose a cellphone carrier, or decide what to eat for lunch. We live in a world bursting with choices, and while on the surface that seems like a recipe for creating a rich, enjoyable life, experts in the psychology of decision-making say it actually leaves us feeling stressed, anxious, and perpetually dissatisfied.

“There’s no denying that, generally speaking, choice improves the quality of life,” says Barry Schwartz, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is The freedom to make decisions in so many areas of life—career, romance, education, friendship, parenting, religion—allows us some degree of control over our destinies and helps us reach our goals.

The problem arises, Schwartz says, when the number of available choices for even the most trivial aspects of life balloons, as it has in American consumer culture. The barista can make your latte with whole, skim, 2 percent, soy, almond, coconut, or oat milk. (Don’t forget to select your temperature and foam preference.) Your parents may have taken you to the local mom-and-pop shoe store as a child to pick out gym shoes, but today you have instant access to more than 50,000 sneakers on Amazon alone, plus free shipping on many of them if you choose to pay the annual fee. Schwartz recalls a relative of his who worked at an accounting firm that offered a retirement plan with 156 options. Option 156? “Employees who didn’t like the first 155 plans could design their own,” he says.

Flexing your decision muscle

The never-ending choices—up to 35,000 a day, by some estimates—come with a cost. Several costs, actually.

“We know that sweating unimportant decisions keeps us from making smarter ones,” says leadership expert Margie Warrell, PhD, a member of the advisory board of the University of Arizona’s Forbes School of Business and Technology. “Spending too much time deciding which shade of gray to paint our walls or which font to use on a PowerPoint presentation uses up mental energy that could be directed to far more valuable activities like the actual content of our presentation.”

This psychic depletion is known as decision fatigue. Popularized by social psychologists in the late ’90s, the theory posits that we start each day with a finite amount of decision-making bandwidth, which gets chipped away with every little choice thrown our way (a dozen within the first five minutes of waking up.) “The metaphor is that it’s like lifting weights,” Schwartz says. “If you keep doing biceps curls, your muscle fatigues. The idea is that if you keep making decisions over and over, you exhaust the decision-making muscle.”

An oft-cited study used to shore up the theory involved more than 1,100 rulings made by Israeli parole judges. The probability of a favorable outcome (meaning parole was granted) was about 65 percent for the first cases heard during a court’s day. Prisoners seen at the end of an hourslong session, though, had almost no chance of receiving parole, ostensibly because “the judges were mentally and emotionally fatigued after expending the bulk of their decision-making energy earlier in the day,” says Warrell (who was not involved with the study). This likely led to “cognitive shortcuts,” meaning they erred on the safest side, which was not granting parole.

A similar pattern was seen in a 2014 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine that found physicians were more apt to unnecessarily prescribe antibiotics—again, “the easy” option, study authors said—after a long shift. Former president Barack Obama has even cited decision fatigue as the reason he always wore gray or blue suits, telling one interviewer, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

But Katy Milkman, PhD, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to says that newer research casts doubt on the decision fatigue theory, and that rather than some mythical decision-making muscle burning out with every passing assessment we make, it’s fatigue in general—the kind incurred by the grind of life—that may compromise the quality of the choices we make. Indeed, in the Israeli study, the rate of favorable parole decisions shot back up to 65 percent after judges took a meal break.

Still, we do have a decision-making anatomical structure of sorts, says Monique Mendes, PhD, a neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. It’s the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that plays a role in executive functioning, learning, and memory. Researchers are still exploring whether it loses strength with every decision, but “we do know that it’s underdeveloped when we’re born and matures as we grow older, which is why a kid who sees a big jar of cookies doesn’t think, ‘I’m not going to eat all of those because my stomach will hurt,’ but a grown-up can.”

Do I want to paint my walls cloud white, simply white, or bone white?

Whether or not you buy into decision fatigue, Schwartz says other downsides occur as a result of having to make so many decisions day in and day out. When people are offered an absurdly wide range of options—be it in the form of jeans, college courses, or health insurance—they tend to succumb to something called analysis paralysis, meaning rather than feeling liberated by so many possibilities, “they become debilitated and can’t pull the trigger,” he says.

When people are offered an absurdly wide range of choices, they can’t pull the trigger.

Consider this renowned study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Researchers set up two displays of fancy jam in an upscale grocery store. In one display, six types of jam were offered for sampling. The second featured 24 varieties. More consumers stopped at the 24-variety assortment, but those who stopped at the six-variety table were 10 times more likely to make a purchase.

Milkman says that when differences between any two choices is very small, having to select from among two dozen of anything can spur a sense of FOMO, because we “may worry more that we’ll regret the road not taken.” Alternatively, it may be that it’s “too much information to process and all the comparisons required feel like they’ll be so effortful that we get overwhelmed and abandon the choice altogether.”

This happened to Brahe while recently browsing online for a new watch. “There was a ‘buy two, get one free’ deal. But I couldn’t find three that I liked, so I didn’t get any.” A relatively benign example, yes, but the stakes increase when analysis paralysis sways major decisions, like participating in a 401(k) plan. One of the same study authors who conducted the jam experiment examined the participation rates of close to 800,000 employees at nearly 1,000 companies and found that for every 10 additional mutual funds offered by the employer, the rate of participation dropped by as much as 2 percent. Analysis paralysis essentially forced the people into a position where they chose not to make a choice, potentially impacting their retirement. “I’m sure that employers thought they were doing employees a favor by offering them so many different options,” Schwartz says, “but most employees would have been better off with just a few from which to choose.”

Even when somebody ultimately manages to pick, say, one Airbnb out of the hundreds listed, the risk of regret often looms large, especially for people who are what Schwartz calls “maximizers,” meaning they feel the need for every decision, even the small ones, to be as strategic and informed as possible. These folks comparison shop for hours, only to end up feeling less confident in the decisions they do make. Maximizers also tend to be less satisfied with life in general, which kind of makes an entire weekend spent researching air fryers seem pointless.

Warrell points out the cost of so much pre-decision deliberation and post-decision rumination. “Every minute you spend overthinking an inconsequential decision is a minute you’re not investing in something that matters so much more—reading your kid a book, exercising, lying down and relaxing.”

Variety may make modern life too spicy

Technology conspires to make many simple decisions tricky. Do you spend $12 more to unlock the free-shipping deal? Will you sign up to attend the Zoom coffee talk with your kid’s principal? Would you like to see 16, 32, 48, or 64 toddler bathing suits per web page? The seduction of being able to shop the entire world, participate in meetings, and do so many other activities from your laptop is incredible, Schwartz acknowledges.

But it can also be incredibly stressful, compelling us to make choices that never even existed before, and “the more anxious we feel, the less smart we think,” Warrell says. “Stress reduces blood flow to the brain, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls objectivity and emotional regulation, is impaired,” says Leah Lagos, PsyD, a New York City–based performance psychologist and author of Heart, Breath, Mind: Train Your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Translation: Your decision-making ability goes out the window.

And if your aptitude for making quick decisions deteriorated during the pandemic, you’re in good (albeit indecisive) company. “Because we‘ve never lived through a pandemic, we don’t have that experience to guide us in how we act,” Mendes says. “So we’re making choices on the fly, using information we’ve gathered from the news and from people around us to make educated decisions about navigating the world. We’re starting from scratch and have to process all of this new information before making a decision.” That spills over into even the most mundane of choices, like which sweatshirt to wear today.

Choose to be less choosy

If the perpetual barrage of mini-decisions is one of your pain points, we have solutions. The goal is to develop shortcuts so you avoid analysis paralysis in the first place and to stop devoting so much time and energy to the perpetual avalanche of tiny choices. “It won’t make you an inherently better decision-maker,” Milkman says, “but you’ll have more time and more happiness, and that’s important.”

Edit your options

You know the little button at the bottom of your favorite retailer’s site that says “Show all”? Schwartz has some advice: “Never click it.”

Narrowing your options by viewing the first screen only will do wonders for lightening your mental load. Before heading down the cereal aisle, decide whether you want something sugary or non-sugary. That way, when you see 60 kinds you can ignore the 30 that are frosted. (Or just shop in a store that carries fewer brands; Trader Joe’s is a favorite of many consumers precisely because there’s less to choose from.) If shopping for clothing is no longer as fun as it was back in high school, follow Milkman’s lead and try a curated clothing subscription box.

Let someone else pick

Rather than spending hours searching for examples of the right brunette shade, Chicago attorney Kiran Mehta lets her hairdresser select the color. “I make the decision to trust that, as a professional, she knows what she's doing. I’d rather do that than spend all of my time and mental energy looking at pictures to see what I like.” Milkman applies the same principle when breaking in a new laptop; rather than tinker with the background or web browser, she relies on the default factory settings and is “grateful I don’t have to make all of those choices.” (The one exception: She adjusts privacy settings.) If you don’t really care where you go for spring break, so long as you have a good book, good company, and a glass of wine, let you partner or friend pick your destination. There, done!

Automate some decisions

For years Caroline Musin Berkowitz of Chicago has worn a similar outfit to work: a bright sleeveless top, a basic skirt, and a black cardigan. “I’m too busy in the morning, making the kids breakfast and getting them ready for school, to think about what I’m wearing,” says the nonprofit professional, “plus I don’t care that much about clothes. This makes my life easier.”

Schwartz endorses Musin Berkowitz’s Obama-style practice. “Habit is what saves us,” he says. “Brushing our teeth in the morning doesn’t feel like a decision because it’s automatized.” Similarly, any decision we can turn into a habit can help preserve mental energy. Make exercise a nonnegotiable and that’s one less choice to monkey around with during the day. Pick a go-to birthday gift for your middle schooler’s friends and you won’t need to routinely debate the merits of crafts versus games.

Or try this tip both practiced and prescribed by Wendy Bazilian, RDN, a public health and nutrition expert in San Diego: Identify 10 or so fan-favorite dinners in your house and just rotate them. Add some variety by following her “anatomy of a…” formula: Mondays, for instance, can be “anatomy of a taco” night—one Monday is chicken tacos, but the next is black bean; Tuesdays can be “anatomy of a frittata” night, and you can switch up the veggies, herbs, and cheeses each week. This helps reduce decision fatigue at the grocery store while still busting up monotony.

Embrace “good enough”

Striving to make every decision as perfect as possible drains you of time, energy, and brain power, plus it limits the overall number of decisions you can make in a day, so less gets done. Rather than search endlessly for the absolutely ideal Airbnb with all the bells and whistles, Warrell recommends deciding on a few criteria—clean, centrally located, pet-friendly—and move on with the vacation planning. Schwartz notes that most people have experience doing this in at least one area of life (buying whatever stamps are available at the post office is one example). ”You already have the skill,” he says. “Now transfer it to other domains.” It may feel weird to bring home the first jar of pasta sauce that catches your eye at the store. “But you bring it home, it’s fine, you saved yourself time, and nobody died,” says Schwartz. “It gets easier and easier to settle for good enough.”


While choosing tomatoes in the grocery store may trip Patty Brahe up, she says major decisions often feel simpler. (She knew she wanted to marry her husband on their first date.) Milkman says this isn’t all that unusual: “When the stakes are bigger, the opportunity for differentiation is also bigger. If you’re buying a house, there’s a lot of room for two homes to differ and one to outshine the other.” With less significant choices, there are fewer criteria where the alternatives can vary, and “when you see two options as super similar, it’s hard to figure out what you want.” This is why selecting a class picture package can be somewhat maddening but purchasing a car feels more clear-cut.

The biggies—marriage, housing, whether to have a baby—deserve careful reflection, but pay special attention to your gut instincts. “Research shows that with big decisions, our first choice is often the best, most intuitive one,” Warrell says.




Less Is More

Meet four women who decided to live a downsized life. They share their motivations and challenges—and the rewards of their newfound simplicity.



Literacy advocate, author of The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with and mom of one

“I wanted my home to be a picture of calm”

When Christine left her job as a lawyer to pursue writing full-time in 2015, she started working from home. “For the first time, I was there not to just eat and sleep,” she says. Being at home prompted an awakening: “I always knew I had too much stuff, but I had everything relatively organized,” she says. She realized, though, that even if everything fit in her closets, it could still be an overwhelming amount to maintain. “I couldn’t ignore it anymore.”

Goal: “When I started, I just wanted to be a minimalist,” Christine says, laughing. “My goal was ‘How can I make my home—and how can I feel—like what I’m looking at in pictures on blogs?’” To her eyes, minimalists’ homes were superclean, and the people who lived in them appeared happier with less. She quickly discovered, however, that minimalism is a whole lot more than a spare aesthetic.

Method: Christine took a slow and steady approach, cutting back in one category at a time. She began with home goods. “We had a lot of knickknacks and stuff on the walls,” she says. The first to go was a large photo in the dining room. “I said to myself, ‘Let me see how the room feels without this,’ and of course, it was fine.”

Biggest challenge: “When you pull everything out of your closet, when you see how much you own and how much you didn’t use that still has tags on it, it’s hard not to get emotional,” she says. “You start to think of the money you spent. I try not to think of it as money wasted.”

Greatest reward: Over time, Christine’s vague idea about being a “minimalist” has become a journey of living with intention, which she shares on Instagram (@afrominimalist).


Host of The Purpose Show podcast and mom of four

“I wanted to be a better mom”

Feeling exhausted from taking care of children under the age of 3, Allie analyzed how she spent her days—and discovered that her time was gobbled up by tidying, cleaning, and asking her kids to get out of the way. “I started looking around and thinking, ‘What is all this stuff? It’s just creating extra work and sucking time away from me. For what?’” she says.

Goal: Allie wished to feel more engaged as a mother. “My babies were growing up,” she says. “I realized I was reacting to my life and maintaining my life rather than actually being present for it. That made me sad.”

Method: Allie purged her children’s playroom in an intense decluttering session one night. The next day, her daughter went to her play kitchen and started pretending. “Instead of going in the playroom, dumping everything out, and asking for a snack two seconds later, she was playing independently.” This was all the motivation Allie needed to tackle the rest of her house over just a few weeks. “I felt like I’d discovered a secret,” she says. “I was onto something.” She worked room by room, and took a carload to her local donation center every couple of days. “They knew me by first name by the time I was done,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t want to put stuff in the garage. I didn’t want piles temporarily sitting around. I wanted it out.” She hadn’t realized the stress her clutter was causing. “It would make me snap at my toddler and nag and complain—just not be who I wanted to be,” she says. “It was so much more than the house.”

Biggest challenge: Her own closet. Allie loves to put outfits together, but in scaling down, she (perhaps overzealously) pruned her wardrobe to just jeans and basic tops. She came to understand that simplicity is relative to who you are. “If you want a full closet, you can have one,” she says. She has slowly refilled her closet with clothes that bring her joy.

Greatest reward: “My soul is lighter, everything is lighter. Even my marriage improved because I wasn’t carrying so much stress,” Allie says. “I chronicled the progress I was making at home in my blog, and that helped me find my passion. It was this massive realization of ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”


Host of the podcast Simple Families and mom of two

“I was tired of being a messy person”

Denaye was messy growing up. “My mom was always chasing after me saying, ‘Clean up your room!’” she recalls. Denaye internalized the refrain, believing being messy was part of her identity. But after becoming a mom, “I was drowning in stuff. I started to feel like this wasn’t the legacy I wanted to pass on to my kids,” she says. When a stylish mom in her baby group posted a picture of her near-empty closet on social media, it piqued Denaye’s interest. The friend told her about the idea of capsule wardrobes, and she decided to try it.

Goal: Denaye’s aim was merely to be less messy. She wanted to get rid of the piles of laundry and paper. “I’d spent years dabbling in organizational systems—these highly systematic ways to keep myself arranged—and it would last a week.” It wasn’t until she purged her closet that she figured out the answer: “I didn’t need to organize. I needed to minimize.”

Method: Denaye’s closet was crammed with clothes she rarely wore. To help herself edit, she focused on a color scheme (a tip she read in Anuschka Rees’s The Curated When Denaye finished her closet, she says, “I wanted to take my coffee in there and hang out.” She decided to bring those vibes to the rest of her house. “I wanted my home to be a place where I could feel comfortable and calm. It took a lot of decluttering to do that.”

Biggest challenge: She didn’t know how to maintain her newly decluttered home. “I knew I had to start buying differently,” Denaye says. She started shopping with intention—looking for specific items—instead of browsing to see what caught her eye. Then she created a family spending plan. “If you’re careful about the way you spend money, you’re going to be more careful about what comes into your home,” Denaye says.

Greatest reward: Paring down helped Denaye find more calm, but she learned that “clutter is not limited to physical things,” she says. She scaled back on obligations for both herself and her kids. “When you live more simply, you are calmer and more present—and your kids are better off too.”


Interior designer, blogger, and mom of two

“I wanted my home to be a picture of calm”

Having read about the tiny-house movement, Shavonda and her wife realized they were paying a big mortgage on a 2,400-square-foot house they didn’t use even half of. “We literally had an empty room we hadn’t gotten around to furnishing yet,” she says.

Goal: The couple hoped to downsize their home and eliminate duplicate spaces, like the formal and informal dining areas and a formal living room and a family room. With two school-age kids, they also wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood with a tight-knit community.

Method: When their house sold more quickly than expected, the family temporarily rented a small two-bedroom apartment, which helped clarify what they needed for their permanent home. When they moved into their 1,200-square-foot bungalow a few months later, Shavonda knew what she had to keep and what she could easily live without. As she decorates the new house, a process she documents on Instagram (@sgardnerstyle), she’s taken a paced approach to filling it. She likes to say that decorating is a marathon, not a sprint. “Absolutely nothing comes in that I don’t love. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a purpose. It could just give me joy or be pretty,” she says of her decidedly not minimalist decor style. “But when it comes to downsizing and living in a small home,” she adds, “less is absolutely more.”

Biggest challenge: Shavonda and her wife had to help their children understand and adjust to the change. “I wanted them to know we could have a great life, just different than what we were used to,” Shavonda says. Her tween daughter especially resisted the move to a smaller home. “We had to make sure she understood that her moms were not in any type of financial trouble, and that this was not a negative thing,” says Shavonda.

Greatest reward: “There’s a saying that small homes breed close families, and it’s so incredibly true,” Shavonda says. “Our kids are very thoughtful about the world around them. We have to be considerate of everyone. We just don’t have the space not to be.”


Donate That Special Dress

Cary Fortin, coauthor of New Minimalism, donated her wedding dress not because she had gotten divorced or had a bad wedding day, but because she wanted to share the joy now, instead of saving it for a daughter who’d have to be her height and weight to wear it. “It’s a dress I felt beautiful in that I wore on the happiest day of my life,” she says. “If I can share that experience with another person—or even three or eight—what could be better?”

Rethink Entire Rooms

While staying home last spring, Ashlee Piper found that she needed a place to unwind more than a dedicated home office. So the author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. donated or sold most of the furniture in her office to make space for yoga and exercise. “It’s pretty bare now, but it feels so nice because at the end of the day I can go into a totally fresh space to decompress from work,” she says.

Streamline Kids’ Clothes

Jessie Lipscomb, an illustrator and mom of three in Charleston, South Carolina, only buys clothing that can coordinate with everything else in her children’s closets, and she sticks with gender-neutral basics. “I can grab and go, and not have to think, ‘Is this cute? Does this match?’” she says. Another benefit: no massive pile of laundry. “Having fewer clothes makes laundry less daunting,” she says.

Give Differently

After becoming acutely aware of issues of waste and sustainability, Nina Hitchen, an interior designer in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, changed her approach to family gifts. For Christmas, she gives her twins just three things each (and tries to source secondhand items). She also asks her family and friends to limit gift giving to one present. “Otherwise my mom would bring a truckload of gifts for them every time she visits,” Nina jokes.

How the Organizers Organize

We asked women who are tidy for a living to show us their homes—and share tips for tackling tricky spaces.



Shira’s dining room in Berkeley, California, triples as an office and a backdrop for her online organizing classes. The built-in cabinet holds the items she needs for work and family time.

1 Edit away: Shira reduced her collection of hosting supplies to the most she might need for the largest party she throws—her Hanukkah open house.

2 Labeled bins help corral all kinds of small items, including candles, napkins, and party decor.

3 It’s not a waste of time to put your stuff away at night even if you’ll just take it out again in the morning. Shira’s family “shuts off” at 6 p.m. by stashing their work in the cabinet—and closing the doors.


For an easy-to-maintain system, designate areas for different categories. For Shira, those are barware, entertaining gear, and work and school supplies.


For the author of Beautifully cabinet drawers are the foundation of her space-saving kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina.

1 Nikki believes in having such a clear organizing system that anyone can locate what they need—even if they don’t live in her home.

2 Always use drawer dividers because they keep things from getting scrambled together, Nikki recommends. Leaving a drawer undivided, she says, “is like hanging a welcome sign for clutter.”

3 Teatime is the highlight of Nikki’s morning, so she devotes an entire drawer to her stock of tea bags. “I give prime real estate to things that encourage me to live a better life,” she says.


Rather than play “hunt, spin, and pluck,” Nikki pours spices into flat-sided jars that can lie in a drawer (such as these Rajtan jars from IKEA). They’re alphabetized—and right next to the stove.


With the help of a closet system, the corner of a guest room is an efficient (and pretty) home office for the Los Angeles–based owner of Simply Spaced.

1 Add a few decorative accents to a modular closet system (like Elfa), and it can be cute enough to live in the open. Monica’s colorful wallpaper draws focus from the Elfa brackets; cloth-covered boxes hide supplies.

2 Upgrade the vibe with things that spark a smile. (The point of life is not PowerPoint.) Monica keeps personal photos and plants in view. “It makes work fun and intentional,” she says.

3 Monica sorts paperwork into categories: Active papers (to-do and to-file items) are in open trays; accessible papers (things she refers to regularly) go in magazine files; archival items, such as taxes, are kept elsewhere.


Monica keeps a large basket empty so she can tidy up quickly. It also comes in handy for packages she hasn’t opened or returned yet.


Thanks to styling and organizing, this New Yorker doesn’t mind having her open closet on full view in her small apartment.

1 Arrange clothing by color, from light to dark. Within each color group, hang your items from lightweight to heavy. “This way, nothing gets lost, and you can see everything within a hue,” Laura says.

2 Consider a limited palette. Laura’s wardrobe is in a narrow range of colors, which saves her time when getting dressed because almost all the pieces go together.

3 Set up your closet so you can easily access the garments you need to make an outfit. Use open shelf space for sweaters and jeans; save drawers for first layers, like tights, underwear, and loungewear. And to make it easy to see everything, hang your clothes so the fronts of the garments face where you usually stand—not away from you.


In lieu of a jewelry box, Laura displays her baubles on a marble tray. She places them in pretty boxes and bowls, much like her favorite shops do.


A few insider ideas to bring order to the junk magnets in your home


Samatha Pregenzer, founder of Simply Organized, uses two storage systems in her Bay Area garage: pegboard-like metal panels, which offer “a place for every tool,” and wall-mounted drawers below, for things such as car-washing supplies and vacuum attachments.


Katrina Teeple, Dallas-based founder of Operation Organization, buys large jugs of detergent to decant into bottles. She stashes the bottles and stain removers in a basket on the counter for quick access.


Shira Gill keeps just two towels per family member (plus a guest set) and two sets of sheets per bed. Shelf dividers prevent items from migrating, and bins hold less-used items, including painkillers and bandages.


Meggie Mangione, CEO of Organized Life Design in Houston, pours dry foodstuffs such as grains and baking ingredients into clear, airtight containers so she can always see how much she has on hand.

20 Storage Strategies to Make Life Less Stressful

Tired of rummaging for that other shoe? Over sifting through stacks of junk mail? These hacks keep clutter away.


1 Create limits.

Prevent small items from spreading all over the counter or dresser by containing them on a tray. Even if the tray gets cluttered, it’s just one small spot—and easy to hide away when company comes.

2 Never set mail down.

Letters, catalogs, and bills still pile up even though people use less paper now than they did 20 years ago. To prevent this accumulation of paper stacks, carry mail straight to the recycling bin and toss stuff into it. Almost everything postmarked “presorted standard” is probably junk, as is much mail from companies you don’t have an account with. (Opt out of unwanted mail altogether at Mark events on the calendar, then recycle invitations. Set bills in a letter sorter to handle at the end of each week.

3 Group the little guys.

In the fridge, use bins to store smaller items (like yogurts) that tend to get pushed to the back, only to be discovered well past their expiration dates. This also works well in the cabinet or pantry for infrequently used baking products, such as sprinkles, food coloring tubes, peppermint extract, and birthday candles.

4 Store it where you use it.

Put bathroom cleaning supplies in the bathroom…not under the kitchen sink.

5 Eliminate extras.

There’s no need to have multiples of kitchen gadgets or a stockpile of supplies in the tool chest. Edit out and donate the duplicates.

6 You name it, you can label it.

Mark every shelf and storage spot with the names of the items that live there so your household gets used to putting things where they belong. Once habit or muscle memory kicks in, you can remove the labels.

7 Go for squares instead of circles.

Use square and rectangular containers in the fridge and pantry. Unlike round edges, the angled corners fit neatly together, so not a single (square!) inch goes to waste.

8 Use a lazy Susan.

Corral condiments, spices, cake decorating supplies, and anything else that can be difficult to locate in the pantry or cabinet on a revolving tray. This provides compact storage so it’s great for small kitchens. Not to mention it gives you grab-and-go access so you don’t waste time rummaging for this or that.

9 Unify your hangers.

In each closet, it helps to have just one type of hanger. For your clothes closets, try the slim, flocked kind because it conserves space. For coat closets, go with larger—and far sturdier—wooden hangers, which won’t buckle under the weight of your wool and down jackets. Donate all plastic hangers to a thrift store. You can recycle the wire ones (remove any paper first).

10 Maximize vertical space.

No need to keep everything right at eye level. Stow your cleaning supplies, accessories, or kids’ toys in an over-the-door shoe organizer. Another idea: Hang a pegboard in the garage or craft room.

11 Use every spare inch.

Wish you had some more cabinet space? Mount adhesive hooks to the inside of a cabinet door to hang your stand mixer attachments, oven mitts, or other items.

12 Put it on wheels.

If a storage unit can be mobile, make it so. That way, you can roll supplies—your office stuff, say, or the kid craft stash—in and out of the closet as needed. Add casters to existing furniture or invest in a mobile piece.

13 Decant, decant, decant.

Ditch bulky boxes whenever you can. Everything from batteries to pasta can be “decanted” into clear storage containers that let you see at a quick glance—when you’re rushing to the grocery store, say—if it’s time to restock.

14 Separate shoes.

Add cubbies to your entryway or closet to keep footwear sorted and accessible. Nestle pairs heel-to-toe. In a crowded closet, stash footwear that’s worn only occasionally, like high heels, in boxes to protect your investment (admit it—they were a splurge!).

15 Make it clear.

Equip your storage area with multiples of the same translucent bin for a tidy, cohesive space where everything is visible. Yes, you still need to add labels. Stick them on the front and back so it doesn’t matter which side of the box is facing you.

16 Liberate the linen closet.

Place folded sheets inside pillowcases, and stow each set in the bedroom where it’s used. This frees up the linen closet for towels and bulk supplies.

17 Roll towels.

When stacked, towels and washcloths tend to topple. For a neater look, roll them and store them in a basket on your linen closet shelf.

18 One in, one out.

To avoid an overflow of stuff, get in the habit of allowing something new to cross the threshold only when something old or unused goes into the donation bin.

19 Hang hair tools.

Always rummaging for your blow dryer? A hair tool organizer hooks to the back of your vanity door and keeps oft-used items in arm’s reach.

20 File, don’t stack.

Put shallow items, like baking sheets and cutting boards, upright in an adjustable cookware rack or letter sorter. It’s much easier to grab one out of a slot than to extract it from the middle of a pile.

How to Ruthlessly Edit Your Life

There’s anxiety and guilt in almost every “keep it or toss it?” decision. To make peace with your pruning, consider this.


DECLUTTERING OUR HOMES is supposed to be a super satisfying weekend activity, right? Weed through a few piles, toss some old trinkets, purge a closet or two—and we can start the new week unburdened by our material belongings. “Organize something or other” is perpetually on my to-do list, and when I do get to that something or other it feels so good. But it also feels…hard. And often ends in a tiff with my husband—like when he catches me down at the curb checking the garbage bags he’s loaded to make sure he’s not throwing away any family heirlooms (and by family heirlooms I mean junk my Aunt Betsy gave me that I just can’t part with).

Even though I wrote a book on life Little Book of Life Skills: Deal with Dinner, Manage Your Email, Make a Graceful Exit, and 152 Other Expert find that getting rid of our stuff, no matter what that stuff is, is not easy. Nostalgia and guilt and regret and anxiety are wrapped up in almost every “keep it or toss it?” decision. As organizing guru Peter Walsh, author of Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life, says, “When you start to declutter a space, the problem is that you focus on the stuff. But it’s not about the stuff, it’s about you.” Let that sink in for a second.

There are two main types of clutter, according to Walsh. One is memory clutter, which he describes as “the stuff we hold on to because we fear that if we let it go, we’ll lose the memory or dishonor the person who gave it to us.” The other type: “I may need it someday” clutter—these are the things we keep for a whole slew of imagined futures (that random piece of wood would make the best cheeseboard if you chop it, sand it down, and become a woodworker in your spare time). Both can make editing extra challenging, but don’t let this be a roadblock to a less-is-more lifestyle. “If you’re overwhelmed by the clutter, and if it takes you out of the present because you’re anxious or preoccupied about what might happen in the future or sad and preoccupied with what happened in the past, you’re not really living the best life you have now,” says Walsh.

Want to be living your best life now? I sure do! Read on for four tough areas to edit, why they’re so fraught, and how to reframe the task so you can plow through and get rid of a lot.


Financial documents

A hallmark of adulthood is paying taxes, and a hallmark of paying taxes is worrying about doing it wrong. “Fear of being audited causes us to hang on to way too many documents,” says Corinne Morahan, founder of Grid + Glam, a home organizing company based in the Boston area. “We’re afraid of tossing the wrong thing so we toss nothing.” With this mindset, we’re anxious about getting rid of something that might help for taxes, investments, insurance claims, etc. “The reality of it is most of our legal documents—even our social security card and birth certificate—can be replicated if need be,” says Morahan, “so if the worst thing happens and you toss something important, you will survive.” Plus, most of us will never face an audit. And if we do—or simply to assist our accountant come tax time—the more organized your papers are and the less you have of the stuff you don’t need, the better off you’ll be. “If you can’t find it when you need it because you have too much to be organized, it’s just as bad as throwing things out,” says Morahan.

You need to keep documents that support income, deductions, and credits you show on your tax return—but not forever. “Assuming you filed correctly, the IRS requires you to keep the supporting documents until the period of limitations for that tax return runs out: three years from the date you filed,” says Melissa Gonzalez, CPA, a senior tax manager at Mazars USA accounting firm in Woodbury, New York. That’s the time in which you can amend your return or the IRS can audit you. “The IRS can only go back three years if your tax returns were filed correctly, but they can go back farther if they find any fraud,” Gonzalez says. Make sure your returns are being filed correctly and you can shred a lot sooner. Go to for more information about what to save and for how long.

Another thing to consider: Financial documents kept too long cross over into being sentimental, and sentimental things are extra hard to part with. “Don’t pretend you’re holding on to things for need,” says Morahan. “If that invoice from 2002 is sentimental, own it and keep it in a separate place away from your legal and financial documents.” And if you’re a chronic bill-saver, here’s a hack from Walsh: Purchase a 12-month expanding file and label it January through December. Place bills in the appropriate month when you pay them. A year later, if you haven’t needed to look at the bills in that time it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever need them again.

Once you know you no longer need a document, you can shred it at home. Or put documents to be disposed of in a trash bag and take them to an office supply store such as Staples or the UPS Store, where they’ll weigh the bag and shred them for you.


Your bedroom closet

So much of our past life is packed in our closets—like the dress pants for when we used to have to get fully dressed for work, not just from the waist up. Because the things we’ve chosen to buy and wear are wrapped up in our identity, each editing decision we make is really about considering whether we’re that person anymore—and that’s a pretty loaded question for a Sunday morning. The workaround: Retain a sense of who you are that’s bigger than that identity. “All these costume changes throughout life are just that—costumes,” says Patty Morrissey, founder and head coach at Clear & Cultivate and senior instructor for Marie Kondo and KonMari Media Inc.. “We need to focus on who we are underneath it all. That’s the wholeness I try to help my clients latch onto. And once they have something to hold on to, they can let go.” So ask yourself: Who am I? How do I want to show up in the world?

There’s a lot of guilt lurking in your closet too—if, for instance, the item on the chopping block was a gift from someone, or a splurge, or an impulse buy off Instagram at 11 p.m. and you actually hate it. Guess what? “The waste isn’t happening when you discard it; the waste happened at the point of purchase, so it’s long done,” says Morrissey. “Remember, organizing isn’t hard. Confronting yourself and your wasted money and broken promises is hard.” Broken promises like a drawer full of running clothes or a pile of rock-climbing gear you never used. Go through each item and pay attention to the energy you feel when you see it. If you get excited, keep it and make a plan to wear it. If you respond with an “ugh” or using it would feel like a chore, get rid of it. If you’re worried about letting go, go shopping! “It seems counterintuitive, but a small shopping trip before editing your closet to get some things that speak to who you are and who you want to become can really help the process,” says Morrissey.

The goal is that when you look into your closet you want everything to love you back. It should be affirming. “If object after object is telling you you’re not good enough, that’s not a good way to start your day,” says Morrissey. Staring at clothes in our closet that are too small, for example, doesn’t actually motivate us to lose weight—it makes us feel worse. “I’ve never met anyone who lost weight and then was sad they had to buy smaller clothes,” says Morahan. “Giving up the clothes doesn’t mean giving up the dream—it means accepting and loving ourselves as we are now.”

Yes, some truth is going to emerge in the rubble of your closet, and when it comes out you need to be cool about it. “Cultivate self-compassion. Gratitude really helps, instead of shame,” says Morrissey. “You can also ask a nonjudgmental friend to help. They’ll give you some accountability and keep you moving so you don’t get stuck lamenting for too long.” And if you need a concrete reminder of how much of your closet is collecting dust, try Walsh’s reverse-hanger trick: Turn around all the hangers in your closet so the hooks face out—the opposite way you’d normally put them. Every time you wear something, turn the hanger back. At the end of six months, anything (except special-occasion wear) whose hanger hasn’t switched direction gets donated. The truth is, you wear 20 percent of your clothes 80 percent of the time…which mean it’s high time for a thorough edit.


Kids’ artwork

A mantra to remember, and perhaps repeat to your kids if they catch you tossing out their fifth stick-figure family portrait of the day: “If everything is precious, then nothing is precious.”

Remember: If everything is precious, then nothing is precious.

Start by thinking about the masterpieces you drew or painted as a kid, says Morahan. “How much of your own childhood artwork do you have, and how much do you wish you had?” she says. Did your parents make you take it all with you when you bought a house, as mine did? Do you really wish they’d saved more? A friend uses this consider-your-future-self tactic: Each kid gets a big plastic box to keep their art treasures, which she tells them will be accompanying them to college. When her kids are deciding whether to keep one of their items she asks, “Is it box-worthy?”

The idea of something going directly from the backpack into the trash can trigger all sorts of mom guilt, so create an interim step and put it up on the bulletin board or fridge (unless it’s scribble-scrabble on scrap paper—that gets trashed). And try picking one or two types of art—Morahan likes anything with handprints—to always save. You could also snap pictures of the stuff before tossing it and make an album (or check out Artkive—you ship them a box of your kids’ creations and they turn it into an album for you).

But don’t go overboard obsessing about any of this. “Mom guilt is such a real thing in every single thing we do, and it can take over,” says Morahan. “Am I a bad mom because I don’t want to keep this art? Am I a bad mom because I don’t have time to make an album? Am I a bad mom because I can’t anticipate what piece they’re going to want someday?” Let it go. Tell them, “I loved your art, and these are the special pieces that I saved” and move on. Assuage any residual guilt (you know it will be there) by recognizing this: What’s powerful about art is not the end result—it’s in the creating. “Your throwing art out does not take away what they learned and the joy and brain development they got from the process of making it,” says Morahan.


Presents you never liked

I have a vase that I got as a wedding gift 17 years ago, but I do not know who gave it to me. It was a mystery then—it arrived at my apartment with no card, and all my inquiries came up short—and it remains one today. I do not like this vase. The thing tips over every time I put anything heavier than a daisy in it and causes me way more anxiety than joy. But I can’t part with this damn thing because it was, simply put, very expensive—and I occasionally wonder if the giver will resurface and want to know how I’m enjoying it.

What is wrong with me?

Turns out, weddings gifts are particularly difficult to ditch because, well, you feel like a jerk when you do it. “Parting with any gift can be difficult and usually stems from feelings of obligation and loyalty to the gift giver, but wedding gifts are even more challenging because they tend to be more expensive and weddings are not a frequent occasion like birthdays and holidays,” Morrissey points out. (That memory clutter Walsh mentions also kicks in, and we worry that we’re somehow dishonoring our wedding vows by tossing ugly candlesticks or bride-and-groom figurines—we’re not!)

It helps to separate the intent from the object. Allow yourself to fully receive the gift, consider the effort and thoughtfulness involved in choosing it, the expense of time and money, and let all of that love soak in. “Once you’ve fully received it,” Morrissey says, “the purpose of the gift has been fulfilled—to communicate congratulations to you. Then you can decide more objectively if this thing belongs in your life or not.”

Give yourself permission to let go of presents you received for your wedding, birthday, anniversary, and other occasion that aren’t serving you, because you know that the gift was in the giving and receiving—not in hanging on to the item itself. “Our family and friends would be saddened to know that gift they got us to bring joy was actually giving us stress and causing us to feel guilty,” says Morahan. “Let it go guilt-free.”

Be right back. I have a vase to drop…I mean, donate!

Let Go of the Things, Hold On to Their Meanings

After losing her mother to Alzheimer’s, writer Elizabeth Mosier found clarity in grief cleaning.

FACED WITH THE SAD TASK of clearing out my childhood home when my mother moved to memory care, I didn’t consult Marie Kondo. I was devastated by Mom’s Alzheimer’s disease, and overwhelmed by all the objects my family had amassed. Surrounded by the flotsam of my parents’ 50-year marriage, I didn’t know where or how to begin. “Think like an archaeologist,” I said out loud to myself.

Years before, I’d volunteered with a team of archaeologists excavating a colonial site near Philadelphia. Back then, the archaeologists would remind me that the stuff wasn’t just stuff. Now, they would point out that the personal artifacts I chose to keep would create a record of my attachment to this place, these people, and the past. And they would understand that these decisions were entangled with emotions of loss. An archaeologist’s job, after all, is to find meaning in material culture. And the practice I’d learned at the Philadelphia lab gave me momentum for the house project, as well as a way to work through my grief.

So as I wandered through the familiar excavation site, I understood viscerally that my family’s house was like an archaeological “feature,” displaying tangible links to who we were and how we lived: midcentury furniture; wedding china used twice a year; black piano, out of tune; handmade quilts; school report cards; women’s suits sealed in dry cleaner’s plastic; handbags holding old lipsticks and Clark’s Teaberry gum; datebooks with appointments noted in tight handwriting.

And in almost every room, multiple shelves double-stacked with books. These books were a beacon in my childhood, signaling that writing was a worthwhile pursuit. Since I’d left home, the collection had expanded to include a few written by me and many others authored by my teachers and friends, as well as duplicates of books Mom had forgotten she owned and purchased again.

Dismantling this library—more than 6,000 volumes—was both the hardest and simplest thing I had to do. I thought of the task as “grief cleaning.” It’s often traumatic, not because we’re too attached to things but because we’re detached from their meaning. But I knew what those books meant, so I could let them go.

All but two: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical which I urgently needed to read, and my grandmother’s 1927 The Farmer’s Guide Cook which was more than a collection of archaic recipes. The ephemera she’d pasted onto and slipped between the pages—magazine clippings, poems, a piano recital program—were markers of social identity. As an artifact, this cookbook my grandmother used in her Frankfort, Indiana, kitchen was a window into the practices of a particular time and place in American history. As an heirloom, it rooted me in home and family when my mother, though still living, was lost to me. I knew the cookbook was a keeper the moment I pulled it from the shelf.

ELIZABETH MOSIER IS THE AUTHOR OF Excavating Memory: Archaeology and

End the Chore Wars

A real-world guide to drafting kids to do their part in the never-ending battle against mess


IN HIS CLASSIC ESSAY “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus compared the punishment of Sisyphus—a Greek king condemned by the gods to repeatedly roll a boulder up a mountain—to humanity’s futile search for meaning. But any parent would probably agree that the story of Sisyphus is really about…housecleaning. Similar to the king, we seem doomed in our struggle against the toothpaste puddles and cast-off socks inflicted by our indifferent offspring. We vacuum! We scrub! We return every stray item to its place! But then—just as we get tantalizingly close to tidy—the kids tromp in, sending us back to the bottom of Mount Mess.

“It’s a huge issue for parents,” says Amy McCready, a parenting coach in Raleigh, North Carolina, who created the online course Positive Parenting Solutions. “Parents get caught in the cycle of asking, repeating, reminding, repeating, reminding, and inevitably exploding.” But our children are generally “not trying to be ungrateful or disrespectful,” she says. “Kids are simply not as bothered by towels on the floor. The mess usually doesn’t even register.” And we parents are often the enablers who’ve made the mistake of cleaning up after our kids, leaving them woefully unpracticed in the art of tidying. There is, however, a clear path (through the catcher’s mitts and random socks) to getting kids organized—just in time to make back-to-school saner for all.

Lay out the rules

Start by holding a family meeting during a calm period to discuss the situation. McCready suggests opening with something like “Hey, guys—one thing that isn’t working for me is the dirty dishes constantly being left out. I love that you help yourself to food, but we need to implement some rules a