Whole-Life Redesign

Sharon October 13th, 2010

As most of you will remember, we came very close to moving during the summer. It was an agonizing decision to make - there were compelling arguments on both sides, and while we ultimately came down in favor of staying in place, we also recognized that the problems we saw with our present situation are real, and need to be resolved in some way. 

All of this came back to us last week when Eric and I took the boys to our favorite orchard, up near the farm we nearly bought.  There was the house and its for-sale sign still there.  We’d assumed that the house would sell, and now we were back to the same conversation - because in many ways, we hadn’t yet begun to consciously deal deeply with the uncertainties of our present place.  We’ve had so much to do and so many projects up in the air that much of the planning and organizing that this will require seemed like a lot of work.  But until we do it, we’re not going to be sure where we stand.

What came out of that apple picking trip was a lot of good analysis, and what Eric and I found was that we both really agree on one thing - that we really need to apply ourselves to making our life work better if we’re to stay here.  We’ve let a lot of things slide because we’ve been busy with other projects - but we both want and need to devote our attention to pulling things together.

What is on the table?  Well, first of all, money.  We’ve never been a profligate family, mostly because we’ve never been able to afford to be.  But looming money concerns are starting to make both of us nervous.  Eric is a non-tenured state faculty member, and the SUNY budget is being slashed - whole departments at his university are being eliminated and we think one of three things is a likely outcome in the coming year.  First, Eric could lose his job altogether.  Second, SUNY could slash benefits and raise costs for health insurance.  Third, the state could enter furlough status and Eric could take a major paycut.  All of these things are possible to likely, and they mean we could be living on a lot less money.

Given the rise in property taxes and insurance costs at our house, I’m not completely sure that on my income alone we’d be able to keep the farm.  That’s one of the reasons we so seriously considered moving, and in a better housing market, we probably would have done so - but I’m not sure we could sell, either. 

So we need to figure out how to live on less money - we’ve done it before - when we first lived here our income for a family of four was less than 20K annually, but we’ve gradually let a lot of creep in our budget accumulate.   By most people’s standards we’re probably pretty frugal - our family of six still lives on under 50K. with only mortgage debt and some savings.  But if Eric loses his job - or has a furlough salary cut or loses benefits, we’ll struggle (like everyone else) and to the extent we can insulate ourselves from that, we need to.

 We haven’t put our full efforts into making the farm pay for itself and reducing its tax burden because we’ve been doing other things.  But we’ve decided that if we’re to have a long term future, that has to change.  Moreover, we’ve got to do the ordinary work of just getting our budget back down so that we can handle major income shifts if need being.   

We’d like to open up the farm - to teach classes on site, bring people in, etc… but that also takes money and planning.  The insurance costs alone are intimidating - so we need to find that budget flexibility and make the capital improvements that would make that possible without going into debt.

Our record keeping has slid a bit, and that makes it hard for us to figure out how some of our projects are going.  We’re doing really cool stuff with woody pasturage, with native plants and with edibles, and we’d like to share it, but for that we need good records, good assessments, to make the place look attractive enough to bring people in, and some capital investments in new projects. 

Besides money, there’s general organization.  I’ve always been something of a slob, but again, we’re doing so much stuff that we’ve let a lot of things go - and the chaos has started to get to the point of really bothering me.  I feel like if I could just give it my time and attention, I could get our home systems working a lot better, and spend a lot less time digging around for things I’ve misplaced or just less time cleaning, if I could get into a system of regular maintenence.  There are costs to always being behind and to losing track of things.

So one of my goals for the winter is to bang the house and farm buildings into shape, and get a plan for actually keeping them that way as much as possible.  Now I buy a lot of time to get things done by not worrying too much about a little chaos, and I plan to stay that way - but I’d be happier with a greater measure of underlying order.   I also need to clean out and declutter - there are still possessions of Eric’s grandparents, for example, that I’ve never dealt with since their deaths four years ago, much less my own clutter.

Number three is simply a reassessment of our goals in terms of being self-supporting and our basic adaptation in place plans.   What’s next?  Where do we want to concentrate our energies?  What projects are on the line, and what can wait?  What do we need to do to start undertaking these?

I want to rebuild our community relationships - probably the single biggest thing besides money that drove us to consider moving was our situation in our community.  After many years of relying heavily on close ties with neighbors, those ties frayed somewhat, not from any conflict, but because of moving, life changes, etc…  The community shifted, and we felt somewhat bereft - and were somewhat lazy about replacing those ties.  We need to devote more time to local community building in our immediate area, or we simply won’t want to stay.  Both of us can see the need for this, but again, time has been a limiting factor.

Finally, there’s time and energy - both personal energy and the kind that comes from fossil fuels.  Commitments keep accumulating, and we’re finding that while all the stuff we’re doing is important, and valuable, the net reality is that we’re unable to find enough time to do this kind of sitting down and reassessing.  Often the only time we have to really talk things out or begin a new project is at the end of the day when we’re tired.  We’re getting to feel like we’re always running.  For example, I realized in July that I had a commitment for every single weekend between August and the end of December.  That’s just too much, and since for us, one of the major benefits of our lifestyle has always been that we have time, even if not money, it seems like almost a bigger cost than the income shocks we expect.

Moreover, I’ve noticed our resource use has crept up a little bit - we’re getting away from using 15% of what the average american household uses and heading up to 20 or 21%.  This is a function of time and energy too - no time means no time to think it through, exhaustion means that it is easier to say “oh, just this one more time.”  But, of course, it is never just one more time ;-) .

We’re not in crisis, we’re not having a bad time - but the fact that we’re looking outward for solutions suggests to both of us that maybe we should try making time to find solutions in other ways first.   So we’ve committed to making that time, and doing the work.  We’re going to sit down and focus on home, family, energy use, community, money, farm, preparedness and scheduling and really work out how we want these things to work, and what we feel we can do to make things more satisfying and happier.

What we’re really talking about is a permaculture redesign, or reassessment of our whole lives.  We’re allotting a year to do it - we have several times now done year long projects - once by not buying anything but food and fuel for a whole year, another with the Riot for Austerity, trying to get our resource use down to 10% of the American average, and both were enormously useful and revelatory.  So we’re going to do it again - starting November 1 and running until next November 1, we’re enting the whole-life redesign project, which I think of as simply an offshoot of Adapting in Place.  And like my prior projects, we thought it would be fun to do it with other people.  Anyone interested?

I’ll write up a set of formal parameters, and do some preparation stuff in the next few weeks, and invite other people to look at their lives and see where work could be done.  I’m going to make up a 12 month plan for what we want to focus on each month, and then get on with it.  If you are interested, I’d invite you to join in.  I suspect it will be both fun and revelatory!


49 Responses to “Whole-Life Redesign”

  1. Emily says:

    I am SO interested! I have been thinking about the same kinds of things a lot lately, and though I am far, far behind you in terms of a sustainable lifestyle, I would like to take some steps toward changing that.

    I especially like the idea of doing things a little at a time. I tend to jump in with both feet, get soaked and exhausted early, and climb out very soon afterward. And of course, having others involved will help me stay on track. (God willing. :)

    Thanks for such an inspiring post!

  2. Kevin says:

    We’re in a very similar boat - juggling too many things, expenses creeping up, possible layoff or pay reduction in sight, and emergency repairs overtaking needed adaptation projects. There would have been a woodstove in by now if we hadn’t discovered that one corner of the house is rotten down to and including the sill plates.

    So yeah, a year of life-redesign sounds like a great idea!

  3. Sarah says:

    I love this idea.

  4. Andrea G. says:

    *Yes!* I haven’t been able to get a toehold in the Riot for Austerity project, because there’s been so much (personal-level) chaos. I need to put some consistent effort and focus into making it stop.

  5. Robbie says:

    Definitely interested…

  6. Cindy says:

    Sounds interesting. I’m not familiar with the Riot for Austerity but will check it out.

  7. maria says:

    I’d be interested! We bought our first home six months ago and it still feels like we’re in limbo. My partner’s job is stable (knock on wood), but I’m expecting funemployment sometime within the next year. I could seriously use some direction.

  8. The Mom says:

    I am very interested. We are really in a similar situation and I’ve been trying to figure out how to save money, do more ourselves and get it all to work more smoothly. I am looking forward to see what everyone else will be doing as well.

  9. Ewan says:

    I/we are in; I don’t honestly think that we’ll be able to work at anywhere near the level you’ll be at, given that we barely have time to make dinner most days… but as a fellow non-tenured SUNY prof, and with the $$ heading for possible worthlessness, it’d be worthwhile.

  10. Zillah says:

    This sounds really interesting, and also necessary here.

    Looking forward to reading more


  11. Ellen says:

    I’m interested! We are planning to move to a little farm in 2 or 3 years (I know, not exactly Adapting in Place) and I want to learn about farming and animals as much as possible before that. Redirect our lives even further down this self-sufficiency path.

  12. Deborah says:

    Oh, yes, we need this too. I feel so overwhelmed by all that needs to be done. It would be great to do this with others.

  13. Amanda says:

    Wow. This is exactly what I have been thinking about lately with my life. I want to really work hard this year to get our house, finances, and lives ready for whatever comes next. There is so much uncertainty. I am looking forward to more posts on this!

  14. rhonda jean says:

    I’m happy with our home right now and we tend to stay on track, but I wish you well with you project and I’ll be watching what you do with interest.

  15. Denys Allen says:

    After doing AIP class this summer and completing my PDC fall (wow I dislike TLA’s - three letter acronyms and yet here I am using them), I am finding my whole way of thinking so shifted that this year long redesign sounds like a great next step. I have a tendency to jump in and not plan, so giving the time to planning and praying about life’s next steps would be good.

  16. Lacy says:

    I’m in! I am expecting my first child in May, and I’ll be leaving full-time employment for at least the first year, and so we really need to reassess our lifestyle to make the most of the money coming in and use as little of our savings as possible while I am working as a mom.

    We have a 1/3-acre suburban lot outside of Denver, large for our neighborhood, with a generous back yard that gets southern exposure. We grew a “test” garden this year, but I’d love to expand it. Our house was built in the mid-70s with some upgrades, for instance, our new high-efficiency furnace (which replaced the 35-yr-old monster that was original to the house).

    We would be doing this on a much smaller level than someone with a farm, etc., but we’ve got to start somewhere!

  17. Laura says:

    This sounds exactly like what I’m doing right now in my life. I was looking at setting up a plan of attack for the next year by reviewing what I did last year (especially with the info that I got from you AIP class last year). I wasn’t sure really where to start, but if other people are doing it too, it would be nice to join in and share. Not sure where to start but I definitely need to pay attention more on the home-front.

  18. SheilaC says:

    I would love to participate. My husband and I sit down periodically to “talk about our short / long term plans” and then end up reviewing / revising our budget. Which is certainly important. But after we’ve hashed out the budget questions we’re usually too exhausted to get to the bigger question of what are our goals as a family.

  19. myriam says:

    I am definately interested! We have so much to do, and focus is precisely what I need right now. I think I’ll spend some time over the next few days picking categories for myself to target, and hope for lots of overlap. Thanks for the grounding post.

  20. Naomi says:

    This is exactly what we need - everything here has been in flux for the past few months, the babies (19 months and 8 months) are out of that super intense newborn stage, and we desperately want to make some lasting changes, but have no idea where to start!

  21. Clelie says:

    Hey Sharon

    This sounds great. I’m curious to find more and see if this process could help with getting some major to-dos off the list!

  22. Michelle says:

    I’m totally in! I’m working on figuring out whether I can get certified to butcher on-site and sell rabbit meat from my micro-farm… local and sustainable, anyone?

  23. Mary Ellen says:

    Definitely count me in! As a senior, I’m really getting concerned about how things are going.

  24. Java Jane says:

    Wow-I need to do this. My only child, whom I homeschooled, is now off to college. I need to declutter a boatload of homeschool materials and reevaluate where life is going for my husband and me-mostly me. My role as domestic support partner is expanding a bit into community support partner (for example, I teach sewing and baking to 4-Hers) but I do have time to make us more self sufficient. So sign me up.


  25. Sue says:

    I am recently divorced with a teenager and living on 20acres (no mortgage, but no money from x) with only a part, part-time job and trying to be as self-sufficient as possible - 100% vegies and eggs, 50% fruit, home grown beef. The idea of actually planning our systems will take the ‘Let’s just do the easiest job on the list’ option away, while the big jobs just pile up. A plan to plan sounds great.

    I am looking at getting a milking goat (no miniature milkers in Aus:( , quail and rabbits for meat, bees, and utilizing our all-year grazing land better - we currently turn off 5 x 2yo steers per year (for the same price we were getting 10 years ago mind you), which pay for land rates and farm maintenance and replacement stock. Water comes from 80,000 gallon tanks and a leaky dam and I can just about afford small solar system, but keeping that money for emergencies/college in 18months.

  26. Marian says:

    Count me in!
    I’ve needed to to this for a while now. It will be so much better to do this as part of a group!

  27. debby says:

    Would love to join in to help keep me more grounded, feel like I am running in too many diffrent directions and in to big a hurry due to the real fears of our families financial future, it all becomes overhelming!!

  28. Msbetterhomes says:

    Wow, this is a beautifully timed challenge for me. My partner and I have just bought the home we hope will be ‘our place’ to adapt to, and will move in mid-November. Thank you Sharon, count me in.

  29. Jenn says:

    I’ve been feeling that a project like this has been necessary for awhile now, but haven’t gotten myself into gear on it yet. Now would be a great time to start, though, so I’m in, and looking forward to it.

  30. Msbetterhomes says:

    Sorry, just realised I mistyped the link above. Have corrected.

  31. Whole-life redesign « Urban Adaptation says:

    [...] leave a comment » Over at her blog, Sharon Astyk has proposed starting a whole-life redesign. [...]

  32. Bryan Alexander says:

    Very inspirational post, Sharon. We were talking about it this morning.

    One thing we need to do is expand the amount of crops we grow, come spring. So we’re trying to get the current plots ready, as frosts are already hitting. And to carve out some new spots, before the ground is too solid to dig up.

  33. d.a. says:

    Oh h3llz yeah, I’m interested! Count me in!

  34. Chile says:

    Ha! Already beat ya to it - not the challenge but starting the redesign. We are not only doing a redesign, we’re having to look at redesigning our lifestyle and, ultimately, our beliefs in what is important in our lives. We went whole-hog towards doing the in-place sustainability thing, buying the land, planning house changes for lower energy and water, starting to acquire equipment for water harvesting and garden, etc. The county has basically shut down our dreams: $4,000 pad upgrade, removal of $10K (assessed value) covered porch, denial of shed placement due to floodplain, and no fences allowed on 2/3 of our property (i.e., you may garden but may not fence out the critters!) means we cannot do what we bought this place to do nor do we have the money (or energy) left to fight them.

    Our journey, once we can get away from this situation - if the housing market allows us to sell, will be discovering how to live a low-impact, secure through peak oil/climate change/economy, and enjoyable life in a fifth wheel (travel trailer). It means throwing out almost all the ways we thought we had to do things and starting over from scratch.

    One thing we do recognize, though, and I would encourage you to take into strong consideration, is that fundamental behavior is very hard to change. You recognize you are a natural slob. One big clean-out, organizational push, de-clutter is not going to change that. The desire to keep organized systems in place does not mean they will actually stay in place or be implemented. It works for a while, but inevitably, we all seem to back-slide into our natural state of being. This not a criticism of your plans, just a heads-up. Been there, done that. Gotta do it again because it didn’t stick. ;-)

  35. Cathy says:

    Count me in, too! I’ve been watching that TV show “Hoarders” and am beginning to see some similarities to my home (haha) but I have been ignoring many things that really need to be done. Have been a widow for 7 years and have been using that as an excuse. Time to change!

  36. Claire says:

    Chile, we have gone through our own code hassles in the past several weeks. Not nearly as bad as you (the county just made us do the pruning and thinning I was starting to plan for the front yard a few months earlu), but even so it was quite unpleasant. Especially because the police officer who came along as protection for the county employee was so incredibly unpleasant and aggressive. He was fully armed as well - talk about intimidating. He was threatening to have the county mow down the whole yard (a full acre, on which we’ve spent over $4K in plants), and assess us for the cost of the mowing. We researched the code and the county can do that - but since our front yard is cultivated garden, it is actually excluded from the requirement to mow to a height of 8 inches or less. We would have sued if needed, but now that I pruned and thinned, I’ve been told our case is closed.

    Still, this points to the disconnect between what is needed in the future and what is allowed now. Our garden didn’t look like a rich, useless flower garden, so we were hassled. You got much, much worse. More of us are likely to run into anything from hassles to the actual destruction of useful structures. We’ll all need to plan for that in our whole life redesigns. I think part of what will be in mine is putting a little energy into getting to know my county councilperson, in case there is a way to influence the codes for the better, or toning down enforcement as things break down more.

  37. Caroline says:


    I would love to be in this project! Keep me posted and thank you for this inspiration.


  38. Chile says:

    Claire, I totally agree that things are going to have to change from a code and enforcement prospective in the future. I think it’s going to take things really collapsing, or citizen rebellion, for that to happen, sadly. Strange a police officer was deemed a necessary escort.

    Ironic you were required to mow. Here, you are not allowed to mow or disturb more than 1/3 acre without having to do habitat mitigation.

  39. AnneT says:

    Add me to the list! I know I have regions to declutter in my house and on the property. At the same time we’re embroiled in projects to make our 100+ year old house more energy efficient (just finished insulating the crawl space under the kitchen — that space is now nearly the same temperature as the main area of the house and our furnace doesn’t come on nearly as frequently on those frosty nights!). I have a fixed income and every single thing we spend money on is rising in price — we need to make the money go further.

  40. Carlin says:

    This project appeals to me! We are newish parents and need to adjust to living on significantly less income. In the chaos of adding a new little human to our lives, we’ve allowed our energy use to creep up and have fallen behind on many of the projects we’d like to do to make our house and tiny urban yard as sustainable and adaptable as possible. I’d like to take the next year to get back on track, and could use some company doing it!

  41. Wendy says:

    We’ve (sort of) been working to redesign our lives for a long time, precisely because we’re hoping that we can figure out a way to live without the income my husband is currently making. A much smaller income that goes with a considerably less stressful job would be ideal. In fact, I’d even be happy with half the income if it meant none of the aggravation and half the work hours ;) . Unfortunately, we’re living right at our income level, which means we need to do some serious paring of our expenses before he will even consider leaving his current employer.

    So, I’d be interested in joining you.

  42. kris says:

    Sharon - you are spot-on again! We are just getting settled into the new house/homestead and waiting for the old place to sell. I am trying to figure out how to NOT allow this place to be just a bigger yard and a longer commute, how to not allow old habits to creep back in. We are in too.

  43. Jacinda says:

    Sounds good. We are in the thick of Spring frenzy sowing/transplanting/planting frenzy so I’lll see how the challenge fits in.

  44. Susan in NJ says:

    Chile — I think you are right about code enforcement not changing widely absent deep collapse or citizen rebellion. That’s in part because it’s a revenue maker for municipalities/counties etc and also tied in to the whole mess of state and federal regulations and laws, licensing and insurance. On the other hand, as political subdivsions lay people off, it may take longer for codes to be enforced. Good if one is ignoring the regs; not so good once they come to enforce because one might be more entrenched.

    And (I’m not saying this is the case with any particular person), at least out here, it seems how things get enforced can depend on who you know, whether you are on o.k. terms with your neighbors, and who has a grudge to settle by complaining.

    On so many fronts, the legal stuff is a real bear when looking at suburbia through a framework other than the current norm.

  45. owlfan says:

    I’d be interested in trying this. I know there are things that I need to do - I just need to bite the bullet and get them done. I’m also slowing trying to clear clutter and get more organized - but it is a very slow process, because it is not my natural inclination to be neat and orderly. I’m trying to take it slow and hope that I am actually changing habits.

  46. Sharon says:

    Reassessing and making a plan…. yep I’ll be following along. Just got the garden cleaned up (for the most part) and planning NOW for next year and preparing for it sounds like a winning situation to me.

  47. Liz in Australia says:

    Definitely interested here. We’ve made an interstate move this year, away from a city which we judged to have limited viability in the event of future disruptions to transport systems and rainfall, and are just about to move into our ten acre farmlet. Great to have a group to bounce ideas off. We’ve done a bit of urban farming (chickens, vege patch) but this will be the first time we’ve had anything bigger than a quarter acre block to plan for! And moving into a new place is a good opportunity to plan new systems from the beginning rather than just fall into them…

  48. Corinne in Paris says:

    Yes, Yes! This is absolutely what I need to be doing, rather than just coping with overwhelming “have-to-dos” all the time. Of course, after reading “The Winter of our Disconnect” (highly recommended), I’ve promised myself to spend less time online….
    Corinne in Paris

  49. Perry says:

    Count me in! I have been meaning to make a list of all the projects that I need to complete and then track my progress and budget for those items I need to purchase. This is just the inspiration that I needed. Thanks.

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