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Laura Vanderkam Headshot

The Little Things That Kill You

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Last week was moving week here in my household -- and it was about time. Up until Thursday, my husband, son and I lived in a 1-bedroom apartment. Obviously, this is not the world's biggest tragedy but it was becoming a major source of family tension nonetheless. We grown-ups had become prisoners of our bedroom after 9pm every night, because the baby slept in the hall outside our doorway. A late night kitchen run for a glass of wine was a perilous journey -- every creaking floorboard threatening to wake the little tyrant from his dreams.

We didn't move far, just to a 2-bedroom apartment upstairs. But happy as I was about the move, the sheer volume of moving minutiae has been sucking my productivity, leech-style, since I first got the moving bug.

As I've been blogging about here on The Huffington Post lately, I am trying to be a Core Competency Mom. A Core Competency Mom focuses on the two things she does best: carefully chosen paid work, and nurturing her family. The details of moving do not fall in either category. Unlike grocery shopping or laundry, they're also beastly difficult to ignore or outsource. When it comes to household management, it's the little things that kill you. In this era of Core Competency Moms, however, an industry of concierge services, household managers and the like has sprung up to try to make the little things littler. Sometimes that works better than others. But for my next move, I'm definitely giving it a shot.


We didn't debate long about renting our new place. As soon as a broker showed me a renovated 2-bedroom plus office in our price range -- and in our building! -- I pounced. The viewing and decision took a total of half an hour.

Since then, though, the time sucks have been piling up a lot faster. In the past few weeks my husband and I have:

• Pulled together $1000 in cash (something we tend not to have sitting around) to start processing the brokerage application. (0.5 hours)

• Visited the brokerage office during work hours to drop off the cash. (0.5 hours)

• Filled out 40 pages worth of lease information, fire safety information, income verification forms, statements that we don't have a pet but do have a child under age 6, etc. Made copies of all this and faxed them around. (3 hours).

• Obtained letters of recommendation which, since we moved within the same building, it turned out we didn't need. (1.5 hours).

• Scheduled the move with the building. Then rescheduled it when someone else booked the elevator. (0.5 hours)

• Asked a friend who had just moved what moving company to call. Called said company, booked packing and moving services, and then made sure the company called the building and faxed over their insurance certificate. (0.5 hours)

• Dumped eight bags of trash so we wouldn't repeat what happened when my husband moved to Norway as a single guy many years ago. He hired movers who packed everything, and wound up unpacking a half-eaten bag of chips that had been transported across the seas. (4 hours)

• Got certified checks to pay the brokerage fee. I went to the bank during work hours, which at my local Citibank branch, end at 4 o'clock. I showed up at 3:54, but succeeded in obtaining my check before the teller shut the window. I ran over to the brokerage again (also during business hours) to drop off the checks. (1 hour)

• Arranged for the keys to be delivered to the doorman. Then arranged for the mail key to be delivered when this wasn't delivered the first time. (0.5 hours)

• Started hauling houseplants and breakables upstairs, since we only had the service elevator for 3 hours. (3 hours)

• Figured out if we should switch to a new phone/cable/internet plan. This took my husband what seemed like ages, and involved saving, at most, $20/month, which is eaten up by our suddenly superfluous TiVo subscription, which continues for another 2 years. (2 hours)

That's 17 hours of random stuff, all before the movers even showed up. Helping them took most of a day. Then unpacking boxes, getting new checks, waiting four hours for the cable guy, changing billing addresses, making copies of the keys and so forth has eaten up pretty much every spare minute since then - time I should be spending working or playing with my son.

I mentioned this to Chris Sterling, spokesman for Red Butler, a newish-concierge service based in California. "I wish you'd called earlier!" he said. The company once fulfilled a request for a client who was staying at a hotel in New York and wanted a strawberry milk bath. Red Butler called someone to go out and buy strawberry Quik. So finding a runner to deliver my checks and pick up my keys would be no problem. Booking movers? No problem. They could even find someone to unpack and organize our dishes in a coherent fashion.

Red Butler's particular business model is to specialize in research and charge by the level of request ($36.95 for 15 requests per month, $86.95 for 40 requests, and $165.95 for 100 requests which - as Sterling points out, is a lot cheaper than hiring an assistant). You pay the cost of your actual request (e.g. 6 boxes of Strawberry Quik) separately. A variety of other concierge services (for instance, 2 Places at 1 Time) either work on similar models, or contract with large corporations to be offered as an employee benefit.

It doesn't always work. My husband, in theory, has a concierge service benefit through his employer. I asked them to plan a book party for me last year when I was 8 months pregnant and immensely tired. This particular concierge service lost the request, so everything got started much later than originally planned -- plus all the venues they found were way too pricey. I wound up waddling to prospective venues and grilling people about menus myself.

This is always a problem of adding a layer of complexity -- someone else doesn't know exactly what you want. The only way they do know that is if you develop a relationship with them -- harder with a big concierge service, but more doable with one individual. One of the most fascinating business models I've come across recently was a San Francisco-based company called The Perfect Wife, run by a man named Ed Daly. As he told me, for $35/hour, he specializes in doing everything that there's "not enough hours in the day to do." He plans parties, unpacks dishes, puts together bicycles, etc. Since he has a small number of clients at any given time, he gets to know them well enough to know it's OK to dump the sheet with a hole in it, rather than fold it neatly in the new linen closet.

The name of his business is instructive. In the past, a perfect wife was supposed to do all these little things as part of her wifely duties. These days, most of us are doing things we enjoy more than running errands with our days. Likewise, we want to spend our non-working hours with our kids, not running to the hardware store to make copies of keys. Or as Daly told me, his clients "don't want to come home at night and put a bicycle together for their son. They want to spend time with their son." Someone like him who enjoys these things can specialize in them, and make a good living, while his clients devote their time to things they like best. This is the miracle of economic exchange - everyone winds up better off.

And spends a lot less time cursing the boxes scattered all over the living room.

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