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Stuff-onomics: Hidden Side of What You Own

Photo by Cindy Loughridge

Coming back from India, I feel like a different person. Not because of India, or that this is the cliché thing to say, but because I’ve been so out of touch with my old reality that I see my old life with a drastically different perspective. On top of being away for 3 months, I’m starting a new job and we are planning to move to another country later this year. Sitting here amongst all my things packed in 50 boxes retrieved from storage, it feels as if someone had pressed the “restart” button on my life.

It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s surreal, and it’s so damn liberating. Gosh, it’s good to be home!

I’ve learned so many life lessons in the past few months, and I’ll start to share them with you over time. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is how little we actually need. How little we need in order to be happy.

After traveling for several months in one bag: two pairs of pants, a few shirts, a jacket, several books, and my iPod (which I used once)…. Coming home to 50 boxes full of Stuff, it felt like my world was once again being weighed down by things I didn’t need. It felt as if the things will consume more of me than I will ever consume of it. Thus, my new project: to simplify my life… starting with Stuff.

Why We Collect Stuff?

How little we actually need in order to be happy.

This isn’t news. You knew that, and I did too. But why was it that I couldn’t part with those DVDs I will never watch again? Or, books I’ll never read? Or, clothing that I’ll never wear?

It is the stuff in our lives which we become attached to, because they give us a sense of self, a sense of identity. And by removing them, despite the clutter they cause in our inner space, it will feel as if someone is taking away our identity. It hurts the ego on a subconscious level.

Why do we collect stuff to begin with? For me, I collected stuff, because I wanted my life story to fit a certain persona and I collected stuff that would back up that story. For example, I wanted to be viewed as an artistic person, so I collected art books, photography collectables, and art works. They are displayed throughout my home, so that when I have visitors, they can see that I am indeed an artistic person and validate my story. Similarly, when I was heavily into technology, I wanted to be viewed as a highly technical person. I bought tech books and studied them so that I too could speak the lingo and fit in with my colleagues. These were my stories, but perhaps you can relate?

After playing the part of several personas, I have become the person I am today. What changed is that I reached the point where I was so full of stuff that I didn’t have room for any more. I have played the parts of an artist, an engineer, a fashion diva, a music collector, a dancer, a snowboarder, and an intellectual book worm. All these personas left me with more stuff than I need or even want. The physical stuff clutters my living space and the sense of peace I feel in my inner space. This state follows a quote I once heard: “Your outer world is a reflection of your inner world.”

india-sadus.jpg
The Sadus of India are pretty content with life, yet they own very little stuff. They carry all their possessions in light cotton bags. “… the biggest lesson I’ve learned is how little we actually need. How little we need in order to be happy.”

 

Why We Should Let Stuff Go?

Removing excess baggage will give us peace of mind, clarity and liberty.
We are not slaves to the stuff we own. We are the masters of our lives and the creators of our stories.

 

 

Learning to Let Go

If your house was on fire and you lost all your stuff, what would you miss most? If you had to move to a smaller apartment and needed to cut your stuff in half, what can you let go of? If you had to move across the country on a limited budget, what would you take with you? For everything else you’re leaving behind, perhaps they are not adding to your wellbeing anyway?

Moving is a great opportunity to practice letting go, since the process of packing forces you to realize how much you own. The more we can get rid of, the less we’ll need to carry around with us. Even when we don’t make drastic changes to our living location, it is still a therapeutic experience to periodically remove stuff we no longer need. Good questions to ask are: when was the last time I used this? Will I use it again? Will I use it often?

Make it an annual project to sweep through all that you own and see what you can remove. Just for fun, let’s call this the ‘Stuff Reduction Project’. Here’s what I did to give you some ideas.

First, select categories of stuff that will be included in your ‘Stuff Reduction Project’. For me, they were:

  • Clothing – especially Shoes and Jackets
  • DVDs
  • Music CDs
  • Books
  • Kitchen Supplies
  • Household Supplies – including cables, power extensions and blank CDs
  • Bathroom Supplies
  • Pet Supplies
  • Magazines
  • Office Equipment

Each category is given 3 hours max and treated like an assignment. Try to spread the assignments out and don’t try to do too much in one day.

Start tackling each assignment with several empty boxes, or leave enough room on the floor for several sorting categories:

  • Yes – Stuff I’m keeping with no pending action.
  • No – Stuff I’m not keeping, but I don’t want to throw away.
  • Maybe – Stuff I’m not sure about. I want to keep it, but also can do without.
  • Garbage
  • Recycling
  • Todo – Stuff I’m keeping that has a pending action or needs special attention. Examples: Papers to file, empty CD cases where the CDs needs to be recovered, ripped clothing that needs mending, shirts that needs to be hand washed, folders I need to further sort through in detail.

For each assignment, follow these steps:

  • Sort As Fast As Possible – Go through everything within the assignment category and quickly make a decision of where it should go: Yes? No? Maybe? When was the last time you wore that shirt? If it was more than a year ago, consider giving it away. How many times have you watched that DVD? Will you ever watch it again? Consider letting it go. Was the item too expensive to just toss away? Sell it and get some money back. For anything you haven’t used in a year, consider putting it in the No or Maybe bin.
  • If Yes – does it have pending action? If so, put it under Todo.
  • Put Yes’s Away – Take all the items under the Yes category and further sort them if necessary. Put them away in orderly fashion. Make sure everything has a home, so you know where to put things back after using it in the future.
  • Sort No’s – Will someone else want this? Can I sell it or donate it? Is it garbage? Can it be recycled? Break up the items you don’t want into additional categories if appropriate. In this way, you give each item an actionable next step. Some additional categories are:
    • SellableI even go as far as breaking items in Sellable into where I’ll be listing them: Amazon.com, Ebay, local listings such as Craig’s list.
    • Give Away to Friend – Put a yellow sticky or attach a note with the recipient’s name.
    • Donate – If you plan to give different things to different charities or organization, do the sorting now. Example, while sorting, I separated new and business clothing for Dress For Success, and all other clothing goes to Salvation Army.
  • Tending the Todo’s – If the Todo items can be quickly addressed, deal with them right away. Otherwise, put them in a box and handle them over time.
  • Take Out the Trash – It is super rewarding to take out a large amount of garbage and recycling after filtering through your house. After sorting through all my paper works, I recycled two moving boxes full of paper & plastic, and two bags of garbage.
  • Sell the Sellables – If you have time to list and sell items online, do it right away. It’s best to sell multiple things at once, instead of one at a time, so you can take advantage of batching and minimize trips to the post office. If things don’t sell in a given period of time, give them away in your donations box or to friends. (I have listed over 150 items and more than half have been sold. Here are some things I have remaining for sale.)
  • Move Out the Donations – Bring your donation boxes to your charity of choice. This too is super rewarding. For me, after moving 10 boxes of unused clothing, books and household supplies out of my house, what felt like big weights lifted out of my shoulders. My closet is now organized and minimal, and I can finally breathe again.

 

Ideas for Keeping Your Stuff Under Control

I know how difficult it can be to part with your stuff, even if we’ve never used it or will ever use it again, we save it for that day, when it might become useful, except that day may never come. Often times, I’ve kept stuff I’ve never used, simply because I’ve spent good money on it and felt bad for tossing it. As a result, the stuff ends up owning me instead of me owning it.

The following are some ideas for keeping your unused possessions to a minimum.

  • Re-Gift Box – I’ve told my friends and family not to buy me anymore stuff on birthdays and holidays, instead to give me something of theirs which I might be able to utilize or nothing at all. Consider setting aside a Re-Gift Box in a linen closet or dresser for things you no longer wish to keep and can make great gifts. Great choices include decorative objects of value with no apparent use, books you’ve really enjoyed but will not likely read again, home electronics still in great shape, picture frames which can be easily re-gifted with a meaningful picture. Re-gifting box is not the same as the Donation Box, only put useful or meaningful things that you’d feel comfortable giving away to friends. Re-gifting is not being cheap, it’s a practical and environmentally friendly way of re-cycling stuff by giving it a home where it can be utilized. For example, a friend of mine needs a DVD burner to back up his wedding photos, and I happen to have an extra one lying around in excellent shape. I plan to give it to him on his birthday in a month along with some blank DVDs.

     

  • The Buying & Giving Rule – Try the ‘rule’ to allow yourself to buy something new only when you can remove something you already own. For example, only buy a new shirt if you’re willing to put an old shirt in your donation box. Similarly, only buy a new CD, if you’re willing to give away or sell another CD.
  • Scheduled Sweep – Schedule periodic appointments with yourself to sweep through certain sections of your house.
  • Ask Questions Before Buying – Most stuff accumulation are the result of impulse buys. I am are guilty of this and have found it helpful to ask some simple questions when I feel the urge to buy. Do I need it? How many similar items do I already own? How often do I use them?
  • Waiting Period Before Buying – When you feel the urge to buy something unessential, try giving yourself a waiting period of a few days or weeks before buying it. Often times, you’ll find that you no longer need the item as you had initially felt.
  • Box it. Date it. Toss it. – For stuff that you don’t want to throw away, yet have no immediate needs for. Put them in a box, close it and date the box that’s one or two years from today. Store the box in an attic or closet. Annually check on these boxes, when the date have passed, donate the box without looking to see what’s inside. If you don’t know what’s inside and haven’t used it in over a year, likely it’s not something you need anyways. And by not looking what’s inside, you won’t get attached to these things you don’t need in the first place.

Don’t expect to get rid of everything in one sweep, it’s a step process of letting go and it’s okay to keep a few things from your Maybe pile. I still have a hard time letting go of some things, but with each Stuff Reduction Project, I get better at detaching and end up removing more clutter. Expect to do several sweeps over the next few years. It takes patience, determination, courage and practice to eliminate the unnecessary clutter of unused stuff in your life. You’ll love the sense of freedom once you’re done.

Do you have tips for reducing the unnecessary stuff in your life? Talk to us in the comments. See you there!

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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122 thoughts on Stuff-onomics: Hidden Side of What You Own

  1. welcome back! i’ve been checking your blog for weeks, glad to have you writing again.

    i often wondered that too on why people collect stuff, wrote a post on it call sentimental value…people are really attached to their stuff even if they aren’t using it. i don’t get it. you can’t be attached to everything. this is a great post, i wish i had it when i wrote mine.

  2. Welcome back, Tina!

    The biggest problem I have in this area is getting people to understand that I don’t want any presents for Christmas or my birthday. They think it’s weird and unnatural. I’ll try the re-gifting idea.

    Another tip–instead of buying books, try visiting a place called a “library!”

    *************************
    REPLY:

    haha.. thanks Hunter!
    I’m doing just that this week: going to the library. I realized this after an almost impulse buy for a book. I’m surprised to find so many selections at the library. :)

  3. Tina,
    Your post could not have come at a better time for me. I have spent the past 3 months working on just this – getting rid of clutter and things in my life that are weighing me down.

    Thanks for a great reminder of how precious life is and that we don’t need all that STUFF to really get the most out of our time here.

    I loved all your tips for keeping your stuff out of control… and have posted a link to Think Simple Now on my twitter page.

    Have a wonderful day… I am really looking forward to our interview on June 6th.

    A new fan,

    Heidi Richards Mooney, Publisher & Editor in Chief
    WE Magazine for Women

  4. Morning,

    Love the post and the blog. Welcome back!

    I think this post is what I needed to read today. I am contemplating putting myself on a moratorium (due to budget concerns) but other things as well.

    I plan to sit down and do some closet cleaning out. I really need to stop being such a pack rat and learn to let stuff go. I’ll feel more free that’s for sure.

  5. I first discovered your site right before you left for India and have been waiting anxiously for your return. Welcome back! This is a terrific post and was well worth the wait. :)

    – David

    http://www.LivSimpl.com

  6. Hi Tina

    I left a comment earlier but it seems it didn’t get through.

    Anyway I’m glad you’re back… hope to see more great posts from you soon!

    http://RichGrad.com
    Personal Development for the Book Smart

  7. Asia Hadley

    Great Post! I’m a newcomer to your blog. Your insights about how our outer world reflects our inner world is on point. I’m in the process of writing a book and I share your exact same perspective and even used that phrase. Keep up the awesome work! And welcome home.

    -Asia

  8. Jeremy

    I have found it very rewarding to digitize my life. For example, I tend to backup all of my DVD’s onto my computer. The same with all of my documents and such. It really helps eliminate a lot of things that take up space and should not have to. The only space that I really need extra is that for back-ups ^_^

    Very interesting article!

  9. jerry

    great article. Here is an interesting piece about how Americans got to be such great consumers.
    http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/2962

  10. I just wish you could of skipped the whole India intro and just got to the meat of the post, which it self was pretty well done.

    Whats my beef with the whole Happy-with-nothing Indians? Because well, they are not necessarily happier. India has high rates of poverty (not the American spin on the world, I mean REAL poverty), high rates of illiteracy, and millions of Indians have awful sanitation and health conditions. It is our drive for status, materials, and riches that encourages us to escape illiteracy and poverty. If everyone was happy being an illiterate herder, humanity would of ceased to grow thousands of years ago.

    Of course organization of all the junk you have is important, and your article was useful in this area, the philosophical theory behind it was misguided.

  11. Alex

    Good read. I had the exact same experience, returning from traveling from a backpack for a few months and realized I’d not missed a single thing.
    I gave most of my stuff away (boxes and boxes of it) threw almost the same amount away, and now I just have a single 2 shelf cupboard with a few labeled boxes of things I’m emotionally attached to (old baby album photos and such) stored at my parents house along with my old bed, desk and bike, but thats literally it.
    Beyond that everything i live on I fit into one single small suitcase, my laptop, clothes, toiletries, a few bits and bobs.
    It has been the most liberating turn. I’ve lived in various countries the last months simply by taking a cheap flight there and sub letting a room in a flat for a couple of months, then moving on. It takes me 30 minuets to pack to change country. That kind of experience is not possible with a truckload of ‘stuff’ attached to you.
    The other plus is you have more cash to hand once you realize that just buying more isn’t the end-all, so you can afford to live at a nicer level, and if you need a new pair of shoes, or a new coat or whatever, you can actually afford something good.
    It’s not a zen-like awakening or anything, I just realized when i returned from the best moths of my life with barely anything more than the clothes i was wearing, my hoards of stuff weren’t doing much for me, if anything they’d become an anchor. Life’s about the experiences you collect, not the material you amass. Not to say become a nomad hippie; you can still be successful and rich and live on a few basics. Idealistic maybe, but in my experience true. I know a lot of people who theoretically share those views, but very very few actually ever really try them.

  12. Alex

    @ Hunter Nuttall; I missed your comment. I laughed when I read it though haha. I sympathize! For a couple of years now I have been pleading with people not to buy me things for christmas or birthday.

  13. You were gone for only 3 months and you’ve come to this conclusion? Wow. I was away in England for over a year and broke most of the time (university) and when I came home I had a similar moment of enlightenment.

    “…feels as if someone had pressed the “restart” button on my life.”
    Good line.

  14. Ray

    I agree with you completely and I like to clean up my various spaces and get rid of stuff. However rather than the questions you posed, I simply ask, “If this disappeared right now and I didn’t know, would I ever notice or care?” That helps me get rid of tons of stuff.

    Great article by the way.

    ********************
    REPLY:

    That’s a great question to ask. I’ll add that to my personal list. Thanks Ray!

  15. Hey Tina! Its good to have you back.

  16. One of my favorite techniques when faced with a daunting collection of something (books, for example) is this:

    Gather a large pile or collection of boxes of whatever the thing is you want to cull.

    Now give yourself a goal: I am going to get rid of 50% of this stuff. (It could be a different number other than 50%, but at least challenge yourself a bit).

    Now sort the stuff into three piles:

    1) dump: no problem, I can dump this without thinking
    2) keep: I really want to keep this one
    3) maybe

    Now assess the size of the ‘dump’ pile. If it’s 50% of the total, you are done. If it was that easy, consider doing another round.

    If the ‘dump’ pile is not 50% of the original total, keep working, going through the ‘maybe’ pile choosing items to dump, until you reach the goal.

    This approach of lumping everything together in one batch helps give you perspective on which things are really important to keep, and which are not. It makes reducing the total volume quickly a lot easier.

  17. great stuff! will come back

  18. Wonderful article. I’m glad that you learned so much in your tours. And me too. Thanks!

  19. Uncluttering is a great idea. I did it after graduation and leaving college and it was scary how much stuff I had saved up in just 1/2 of my apartment!

  20. Hey,

    Good article. I try to be a light being without being weighdown by accessories…but not always successful, I have to confess.

    But I do have a rule that I strictly adhere to…If I don’t use something in 6 months, probably I don’t need it.

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