Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 74

Tidiness for Demihumans

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That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So, carefully! carefully with the plates!

A few years ago I did my one and only book review on this podcast (so far) on Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which I contrasted her revolutionary, “one and done” approach with the slow habit-based approach of Everyday Systems and concluded that there’s a time and place for both. Basically her approach is you do a massive cull of your entire living space all at once, thoughtfully and thankfully acknowledging all items that no longer “spark joy,” and then once everything has its own minimalistic right place, the order of the space will more or less preserve itself. I know she’s gone on to write more books and have a TV show and I haven’t really kept up with any of that, but I believe that is still the crux of her approach. And I respect it. I acknowledge that sometimes a revolutionary approach does make sense, that habits aren’t always the only solution for every problem. But habits have a role to play in tidiness too, and that’s what I’d like to discuss today.

I don’t have a single, unified system (yet!) – but a few principles that animate my efforts, really just catchphrases that I keep in mind while I’m cleaning up, day to day. I am by nature an enormous slob – I like to joke that my hands are not connected to my brain because I can never remember where I put anything. So they may not seem that revelatory to you. They may seem obvious. But the No S Diet is simple too, and I like to think it’s precisely because of my natural deficiencies that I’ve had to come up with these systematic, simple-seeming but subtly effective compensations. Following up on my previous episode, think of the principles I’m going to present to you today as Tidiness for Demihumans.

Or to VC Cat it up a bit, think of them as weapons for you, the great hero, Gilgamesh, in battle with Tiamat, the power of chaos itself. We’re not trying to put the finishing touches on perfection; we are not Martha Stewart wannabes; the world is collapsing around us, and we’re making a last, heroic, probably doomed stand in a Götterdämmerung of mess.

Alright, with that drama out of the way, the first and foundational principle of Tidiness for Demihumans is “like goes with like.” When there is a mess of any kind, put all the similar things together. Do this on your shelves when you are putting things away, do it in your dishwasher. Put the big plates with the big plates, the little plates with the little plates, the forks with the forks, etc. Do not jumble everything together. That makes things harder to find, and is aesthetically offensive. When like goes with like, you find things much more easily. In mass they present a bigger target, and when you’ve found one of a particular kind of thing, you know you’ve found them all. Even in temporary situations, like when you’re loading the dishwasher, “like goes with like” makes sense because then it’s easier to unload and put everything away. It also makes the job of loading the dishwasher more intellectually satisfying, it gives you a sort of game to play.

“Like goes with like” may seem obvious to the point of not needing to be articulated. But look around you. My guess, if you’re anything like me by nature, is that you’ll see a fair amount of jumble. This catchphrase helps me see that. What might before just have been a feeling of confused uneasiness resolves into clarity about what the problem is, and what to do about it. Repeating the phrase in my mind as I execute on it has helped to deeply entrench it. And this goes for all of the tidiness catchphrases: I’m in a situation that brings it to mind, some kind of mess, and then that phrase goes off in my head, and I have to follow through. I can’t just walk away from it once I’ve thought “like goes with like.”

And any amount of “like goes with like” is progress. You see two pens and push them together. Like goes with like. Order has increased, even if only ever so slightly.

Closely related to “like goes with like” is “one homeland.” All your like things should always go in the same permanent place. You bowls or your cheese grater shouldn’t be nomads wandering throughout the house. They should always return to the same spot in the same room, in the same cabinet, etc., with all the others of their kind.

One trick to reinforcing “one homeland” is physical labeling. For example, slap on a piece of gaffer tape and sharpie the name of the thing that’s supposed to go there. This is definitely not Martha Stewart, but it removes all ambiguity, and is often the only way to communicate “one homeland” to other people in your household.

In a related maneuver, I’ve gone so far as to take pictures of properly organized shelves etc. and hung them up on the wall next to them to reinforce this to myself and dear family members who were taking a little longer to get it. If the shelf looks different than the picture, something’s wrong. This sounds potentially psychotic, but done with a smile, I like to think of it as yet another example of that foundational Everyday Systems principle, comic pragmatism.

That being said, you don’t need labels or still life photography to practice “one homeland.” They’re just some extra that might help reinforce and communicate it. The main part is the catchphrase itself, implanting that in your brain so that it goes off whenever you see your daughters’ hair elastics and what not strewn all over the apartment.

If you don’t know where something’s appropriate homeland is, say, because you’re cleaning up someone else’s things, or it doesn’t have an established homeland yet, “like goes with like” is a good interim fallback. Then it’s just one mass of things in one place to repatriate. And by being more conspicuous and more obviously intentional than scattered jumble it makes it harder to ignore the fact that a homeland is wanting. It’s like a physical todo list item that no one can pass by without a tug at the conscience.

The third principle is “nesting,” if you can fit those “like goes with like” things together in their proper homelands so that one slides into the other, taking up less space, do so. Do not interweave bowls or baking sheets of different sizes so they can’t stack efficiently. Do not interpose a plate between two bowls that could otherwise compactly nest together. That is an offense against both “like goes with like” and “nesting.” Once you’ve properly internalized “nesting” it will be physically painful for you to see poorly nested objects. It becomes the most subconscious, aesthetic, emotional, automatic of all these tidiness principles.

The greatest infractions against these three principles I mentioned so far occur when you are in a rush and don’t want to be bothered to lift a pile of plates to slide another like plate in, etc, either because it’s heavy, or two high up, or otherwise inconvenient. Which brings us to the fourth and final principle: “Don’t throw your future self under the bus.” When such a thought occurs to you, remember the grief you are saving your future self and other people who will have to contend with that mess, and do the lifting, get the stepstool, etc. “Don’t throw your future self under the bus” has applications beyond tidiness, and can be extended to “Don’t throw your mother under the bus, “Don’t throw your roommate under the bus,” “Don’t throw Immanuel Kant under the bus,” etc. This is the hardest rule to follow because you are always in a rush and sometimes there are multiple buses hurtling towards your present self in the now and someone’s getting thrown under a bus you’re going to get out that door to get work on time. Still, it can be helpful to call to mind. You don’t want to be casually throwing your future self or anyone else under the bus.

Sometimes one or more of these rules of tidiness are in conflict. Sometimes maximally efficient nesting requires separating like from like. I must confess I slip the stainless steel colander between the matching plastic bowls in order to achieve this because I judge the space savings and even the aesthetics to be worth it in this case: precariously towering piles of even similar things do not look good. But such instances are rare. And when you consciously make exceptions, weighing the trade offs, they really do prove the rule, there is a note of dissonance, that then resolves, and the rare calculated exception jolts you into remembering the rule and actually strengthens your sense of it.

I will leave you on that beautiful note of resolution. May you experience it as well, at least sometimes. It’s been said about the other virtues, I’m not sure how truthfully, but tidiness really can be its own reward – even for demihumans.

I have a couple more tidiness related thoughts but they’re bound up with other issues I’d like to talk about in separate episodes. I hope what I’ve discussed today is enough to at least advance your thinking on the subject for now. And if you are not a demihuman yourself in this regard, I’m sure you know someone who is, maybe it will be helpful for them. In any case, thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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