Rethinking Junk

July 15, 2010

Stuff should be there to USE, not to keep for its potential!

Felt inspired by an article on zenhabits called “The Clean-Slate Guide to Simplicity”.  It was about putting everything away in boxes, and only taking something back out when you really need it.  The idea is to minimize using a strategy of addition instead of subtraction.  I wanted to try this on the junk in my desk.

I opened all the drawers in my desk, looked at every little thing in there.  Put some things in a cardboard box, then one by one put it all back.  There’s so much stuffed in there that I don’t have any place to put it when it’s not in the desk.  So… strategy didn’t work this time.

For example I have three full boxes of staples.  I hardly ever attach paper together with a stapler anymore, so this is more than a lifetime supply.  But what should I do with extra stuff like this – brand new in box products.  Toss it?  If I somehow run out of staples I can spend $2 to get more.  Or rethink my need to staple things.  I use less paper today than I used to, and mostly use paper clips.  Do I need to have a stapler at all?

Much of this uncertainty comes from the temporary nature of my living situation – renting a room.  I don’t have a kitchen, so all my most treasured kitchen tools and dishware are packed in boxes, unused and out of sight.  I’m pretty sure that at some point in the future I’ll have my own place with a kitchen.  But I don’t know when that will be.  So would it be better from a minimalist viewpoint to get rid of everything I’m not using, and replace it with new things if/when they are needed someday?  Or just continue to keep the boxes with me so my potential future kitchen will have a few special homey items?  Much of that stuff is already gone, I kept only things with strong memories attached.  Rethinking the need for these is harder than office supplies because I’m fond of them.


A key principle of clutter creation is saving things for later.  Examples:

  • Getting mail, looking at it once, then putting it on a pile of papers to deal with later.
  • Buying a book that looks interesting, even though you have no time to read it, figure you’ll read it someday soon.
  • Recording a TV show that you can’t watch right away, putting the tape with your library of things to watch later.
  • Skimming through email subjects, intending to devote time to reading them all later.  Hundreds of unread emails building up.
  • Buying a set of pots and pans for the new larger kitchen that you hope to have someday.
  • Getting new clothes that don’t fit, so you’ll have something to wear when you lose weight.

It’s good to plan for your future, but … come on!

The mail could in theory be handled right when it comes in.  Open it, pay bills, file paperwork.  But that requires the energy and mental focus to deal with it at any time, which for me is rare.  I get mail after work, burned out from the day’s effort and only have energy to look at the envelopes.  If the energy is there, the focus may not be – because of the distraction of the mess and piles of things I’m responsible for doing.

Data Clutter

March 25, 2009

Ten days ago I was sitting with a pad of paper, trying to organize my thoughts on how to approach the clutter caused by the damp things spread out to dry.  After I while I just wrote: “At the end of today I want the bedroom to be in a state where I can leave it as-is for one week.”

That was accomplished.  It was all consolidated in one area, half-packed boxes stacked up along one wall.  Shoes, books and things piled underneath card tables.  The chaos was still present, but contained.

It occurred to me today that I didn’t feel motivated to finish packing the dry stuff back into boxes and storing them.  It’s not as offensive now to see these things, compared to when they were damp and musty.  As if the stuff is blending into the landscape of clutter in the bedroom, so that I am not seeing it anymore.  Soon I’ll need to pack it up so I can reclaim some floorspace.

I want to upgrade my computer.  But it worries me.  Where will I put the old computer?  Where will I put all the stuff that comes with a new computer?  (disks, books, cables, boxes)  How will I consolidate all my data so it can be transferred and then backed up?

Data, like objects, have been collected by me and saved for a long time.  I still have text files that were downloaded to a Commodore 64 from a BBS using a 300 baud modem!  Also most things I’ve created on computers – including programs written in college that won’t run on any system I have now.  I did throw away the paper printouts of those old school projects, but I probably still have the data files.

I have all the pictures taken since I got a digital camera.  That collection is getting pretty big now.  Data takes up little physical space, but there are media like CDs, DVDs, Zip disks, flash drives, external hard drives.  That crap takes up real space.

Flooded Basement

March 14, 2009

A week ago the basement at the house flooded.  It was a rare warm day in in winter, snow and ice melting, plus it was raining.  Water level in the basement rose to about 8 inches and stayed there most of the day, slowly draining out overnight.  I’m told this is a rare event, the basement had been damp, but no flooding in the last 20 years.

I was storing about 30 cardboard boxes down there, many of which were sitting on the bare concrete floor.  They were stacked three boxes high.  A few of the lower ones changed shape when they got soaked, causing the upper ones to fall down and get wet.  I discovered it the next day, when the furnace wouldn’t turn on I went down to look.  The whole floor was a wet mess, with boxes and plastic cans knocked on their sides.

This past week I went to my job every day like normal, then rushed back to the house to work on saving as much as I could.  Things that got soaked were clothes, shoes, books, and paper files.  Bedroom is super cluttered right now, with piles of clothes on chairs, card tables, and hanging up on hooks, damp books arranged on any available flat surface to dry, and shoes all over the floor.  The musty smell is making it hard to sleep there.  Haven’t opened all the wet boxes yet, due to lack of workspace.  Trying to hurry and get things dried out before they can get moldy.  Planning on finishing it this weekend.

Sadly, most of these boxes are things I am storing for someone else.  If it were mine I’d rejoice and heave the wet junk into the dumpster and be done with it.  But since it’s not mine and I am responsible for it, I feel obligated to save as much as possible.

I was thinking the other day, as insane as it is to store things for friends, it actually does help me with decluttering my own stuff.  Being able to compare the physical volume of my stuff with the stuff belong to other people, gives me a perspective that changes the way I look at things I feel attached to.  Other people have an emotional or memory attachment to their own things which I don’t share.  Looking at junk I’m not attached to, and then looking at my own things, allows me to view my own junk as if it were someone else’s.

Went to the storage unit yesterday to tackle my friend’s boxes, pictured in the previous post.  My main goal for the day was to do an inventory.  I want to at least know what I am dealing with, so that information can settle in my subconscious before next weekend, when I’ll go back and make decisions.  Each box was opened, and quickly evaluated to see what’s in there.  I took a digital photo of each opened box.  Here’s what I found:

  • 7 boxes of “merchandise”.  Things that I can sell or give away.
  • 2 boxes of tools and hardware.
  • 9 boxes of paper files.
  • 33 boxes of books, magazines, VHS tapes, audio tapes.

More than 50 boxes in all.  As I feared, most of them are books.  I still haven’t been able to deal with my own overwhelming collection of books, and now this!  The merchandise I can reduce down to one box or less by using ebay and freecycle.  The papers I can reduce to one box just by looking for important looking stuff and tossing the rest.  Tools, (not sure) maybe combine them with the merchandise items.

So that leaves the big obstacle of the books/media.  Sadly much of it was damaged by the humid conditions in the garage, even though the boxes were in plastic bags.  I did not do any detailed sorting, but did see obvious green patches on the edges of some books.  And all of it smelled musty.  My fingertips were black with dust, mold, and dirt when I was done.

I know that my friend spent decades putting together his “library of knowledge”. It would be so sad to just dump them all in the trash.  But at the same time he has basically abandoned it all.  I thought of maybe listing the titles so that the collection can be rebuilt in the future if he wishes.  Actually I may have seen an index in his paper files, so I’ll find and save that.  When I go through the books I should use the criteria of tossing anything that can be replaced.

I was in the accursed storage unit yesterday to work on reducing the volume of junk.  Got rid of two pieces of furniture – sold one and gave the other one away.  Spent hours sorting through boxes of old musty papers and throwing out most of it.

In my previous post on the storage unit I said that I was storing boxes for a friend who now lives in another state and changes the subject whenever I ask about taking this stuff back.  Well, yesterday was the first time I started going through his boxes and throwing things out.  I felt a little guilty about tossing things which might have sentimental value.  Later I wrote an email to him saying this:

2008 is the year of letting go.  It is the year of releasing pent up energy from the past out into the universe and embracing the future.  Please remember this kind thought and try not to hate me.

The insanity of long-term self storage really struck home with me when I started finding things like unused blank paper, candles half-melted from the summer heat, hundreds of dried-up ballpoint pens, moldy envelopes that can’t be used, etc.  In short stuff which can very easily be replaced.  I have been paying a significant amount of money every month to store this garbage!  Even if you take into account the useful tools and furniture, I could have repurchased everything in there many times with the money spent storing it over the years.

Realizations like this make me so glad that I am finally doing something about this.

Reducing Book Volume

April 6, 2008

Sorting through the books is hard because there are so many of them and holding each one in my hands brings to mind an unfinished project or a pleasant memory.  I need to find a way to decide what to discard without summoning those memories and feelings.  Maybe I can do this by taking an inventory, and then deciding what goes based only on the list.  The bankers boxes contain a total of 120 books.  Some I think I can let go right away, especially ones I’ve read that could easily be replaced.  Some I wanted to read when I bought them but never did – so not a great loss if I never read them.  Others I definitely do want to read, but can chuck them after I do.  Some reference books, and personal history type things I want to keep.  I should take the inventory away from here, to a diner and over lunch choose what to keep or toss.  Maybe put them into categories and only keep a certain number within each category.