Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A very simple rule of thumb

Back home after a 3-day weekend in Maine, I briefly contemplated the story I needed to file for the Globe, the emails to be answered, the ticket form to fill out for Tim’s graduation, the popsicles to procure for Holly’s Field Day, and the camp registrations for both kids due in tomorrow’s mail, and then invoked what I call Gayle’s Rule for Returning Home: Always unpack before sundown.

Well, that may be a slightly romanticized version of Gayle’s rule, which I don’t think actually involves the solar calendar per se but merely states that you should always unpack before bedtime on the day you return from a trip.

And in fact, I don’t think Gayle herself even considers it a rule. But I do. For me, ever since I heard about it, it’s been a fundamental practice for self-organization.

Gayle was my sister’s college roommate, and my sister happened to mention a few years ago that she remembers being impressed at how no matter how late in the day Gayle might breeze in from the airport or how full her suitcase might be, she always unpacked right away. I was so intrigued by this basic notion that I emailed Gayle right away to ask about its origins. Was it something her parents had required when she was young? Did everyone in her family follow this tenet?

Gayle responded that she really hadn’t given it much thought. It was just something she always did and never really considered it a fundamental practice.

For me, it was just one of those times when a habit someone else takes for granted becomes something worth emulating. Until that moment, my typical practice had always been to consider unpacking a low priority. A suitcase could sit in the corner of my bedroom for days, its rumpled contents untouched. 

Eventually, when I needed something that was buried at the bottom of the suitcase, or when I was getting ready to do laundry, I’d get around to unpacking. Or at least partially unpacking. The rest of the job might go undone even longer, for weeks sometimes. Possibly, if I was feeling really busy, I might even wait until the next time I needed the suitcase.

But Gayle’s notion stuck in my head as a simple way to make homecomings more organized, to cut down even if only ever so slightly on the frazzle that often comes with the end of a trip. This weekend was a perfect example. I felt swamped by the number of little tasks, work deadlines, and matters of administrivia that awaited me.

But I unpacked my suitcase, and the whole situation somehow looked brighter. No bag of dirty clothes in the corner of my room: surely that proved I couldn’t be quite as disorganized as all that if I’d managed to accomplish that singular task.

Several years ago, there was a popular website called The Fly Lady, in which a guru of personal organization and housekeeping disseminated wisdom: her standard rule was to clean the kitchen sink every day. And Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” writes that the single most popular tactic developed in her book, according to feedback from her readers, is to make the bed every day.

I still have deadlines and tasks awaiting me, and they won’t go away on their own. Gradually I need to tackle them all. But I still maintain that Gayle’s Rule is a fine approach. Put away those clothes and toiletries. Maybe even start a load of laundry. And somehow the rest starts to fall into place.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I had no idea that my compulsiveness was so widely known. Glad to see that it has inspired you to try it - I do find that it's an immediate way to feel more on top of things. But then again, I am the type of person who cleans and organizes when she is feeling stressed - it's all about control - so that's where it comes from.