How to Get Rid of Your Stuff

We did pretty well, I thought. 

I got rid of six case logic books of CDs. I emptied out my photo albums and winnowed them down to a single small box of pics. I tossed all my old books; even gave away my complete set of mid 90's Marvel trading cards.

I tossed all the socks with holes in them. I got rid of the sneakers with the worn out soles. The back up hats and gloves and jackets. 

We donated an entire car load - trunk and cabin - of kitchen supplies, clothing and junk drawer stuff to Goodwill. 

And yet, when time came to relocate to my mom's house for the last two weeks in Chicago, it took three trips. The spare bedroom was stacked chest level with plastic tubs, the downstairs entryway blocked with cardboard boxes and laundry baskets full of pots and pans, hiking boots, snow parkas and sleeping bags. 

When Jess drives to Atlanta right before Christmas she needs the entire back seat for Lily, our 9 year old lab mix. Whatever she can't take, I have to ship. And it won't be cheap. 

The difficult part of eliminating personal belongings is the extent to which objects serve as symbols or props for our identity. Facing down the already reduced pile of possessions required becoming clear about who I am so I could separate that person from the anachronistic and messy associations of my past that lived in this small mountain of crap.

Here's a few things I learned:

GET RID OF THINGS THAT DON'T WORK WELL

Guess when I will get around to patching the butt on these old jeans.   Never.

Guess when I will get around to patching the butt on these old jeans.   Never.

Those shorts that are tight over the hips? Those formal shoes you can't wear for more than two hours without your feet hurting? The jacket that just about fits and is only a little bit out of style?

Eliminate them. 

There's an insidious category of objects who are so close to being well liked and used that we hold on to them for the right moment or right adjustment that we assume will make them useful and necessary. 

Our goal is to cultivate a smaller set of possessions that we are deeply engaged with and whose value is vividly clear. If everytime you pick it up you think of the one thing that would have to change to make it right, then just toss it out.

GET RID OF THINGS FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS

Sure, I dress as Santa every single Halloween, but that's still only two wears a year.

Sure, I dress as Santa every single Halloween, but that's still only two wears a year.

If you only use it once a year, toss it. 

Ice skates you use once every winter? Sun hat you wear to the beach once every July? Food mill you use for that annual dinner party when you make fresh marinara?

Get rid of them.

The key here is to realize that you are creating a small amount of discomfort in the future. Will there be a time, in a few months, you might wish you had this thing? 

Sure. 

And indeed holding onto each individual item isn't burden enough to cause you to toss it out. Instead you have to think about the reward for a life empty of all this extra crap. A household, a mental state, where the extra brick-a-brack stuffed under cabinets or on top of book shelves no longer exists. That larger meaning and state is well worth these smaller individual adjustments to expectations. 

GET RID OF DUPLICATES IN EACH CATEGORY

I'd like to say that some of these were gifts, but that would be a lie. I bought everything you see here on purpose.

I'd like to say that some of these were gifts, but that would be a lie. I bought everything you see here on purpose.

How many red t-shirts do I need? 

One. 

So why do I have three?

The actual reality of how and why we use objects is often eclipsed by what the idea of owning them means. The way in which our personal history lives on in our dresser drawer, even though the actual purpose of all that stuff is WEARING IT.

Clothes are a great place to apply this lesson. This red shirt might be about my trip to Turkey and this one about my first improv team and this one about playing squash in college. But when I get dressed in the morning, I'm looking at the color of my pants or the sweater I'll wear over it. It's the color and style that matters, not the history it carries. 

The simplest way to eliminate this sentimentality is to search for and ruthlessly eliminate duplicates. Your categories can be as expected or creative as you like. Maybe the category is shoes or maybe it's concert t-shirts. Maybe its ties or maybe its stuff your mom gave you. Think more about how the objects in this category are really used on a daily basis and then pick one. Toss the rest.

GET RID OF THINGS THAT ARE FROM WHO YOU USED TO OR EXPECTED TO BE

As a child, I dreamed of playing in the NHL. As a grown up, I have dreamed of ever actually using these ice skates that I paid actual American money for.

As a child, I dreamed of playing in the NHL. As a grown up, I have dreamed of ever actually using these ice skates that I paid actual American money for.

If you have a closet full of old sports equipment or work clothes, then you have a great opportunity to toss stuff out. 

Just as many objects are a part of our past identity others are artifacts from who we expected or aspire to be. 

Face it. You don't play tennis. I know you played that one time. Maybe you even played a couple of times for a month or so. But just as we have to be clear on how we actually use objects, we also need to be clear on what we actually do with our time. 

When I started working, I expected to need to wear a suit. So I bought suits, I bought dress shoes, I bought waterproof spats to cover those dress shoes. I bought an entire box of shoe polishing and buffing supplies. 

There are objects constructed of who you intended or hoped to be, or who an older version of you expected to become. But you aren't that person and you're not giving up on becoming someone different by getting rid of the props that compose that identity.

Clip the dead ends. Things didn't turn out that way. Be realistic about who you really are, at this moment, not in an imagined past or ideal world.

GET RID OF STUFF THAT IS MORE THAN 10 YEARS OLD

I wear this capilene shirt when I feel bad about not having worn it in a while. 

I wear this capilene shirt when I feel bad about not having worn it in a while. 

Generally speaking, if you have something that is more than ten years old and isn't worn out, then you probably don't use it often enough to really need to keep it around. Obviously we all have a few high quality and much beloved tools or clothes that we use daily that are more than ten years old. 

But if you've had something for ten years and its still in good enough shape to be used, then you probably aren't using it that often. Toss it.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO CREATE WASTE

As it turns out, I also threw out this garbage can! 2 for 1!

As it turns out, I also threw out this garbage can! 2 for 1!

I'm trying to minimize how much we throw out. We're donating food, clothes, furniture...I drove a mostly full bag of dog food to a local shelter to avoid throwing it out. 

However, there is a whole menagerie of small household objects and items that simply have no second life in them. Empty pens, old socks, worn out plate or bowls. 

You can't donate it all and if you are truly dedicated to refining your personal items down to an essential and vital few, then you will need to throw some stuff out. Waiting to find someone to give it to or trying to figure out how to make use of the last remaining bit is simply prolonging the inevitable and preventing you from gaining any momentum on getting rid of stuff. 

BELIEVE YOU CAN SOLVE PROBLEMS AND BE COMFORTABLE LATER ON

The fear underlying our keeping so much crap is that we might need it someday. That if we get rid of it now, we'll wake up in a few days or week or months and want the very thing we've tossed. The simplest solution?

Accept that exactly this will happen.

You will get rid of too much. You will realize you wish you'd kept that childhood trophy or knife block or baseball cap. And then? Then you'll get over it. 

There is no essential set of possessions that make up you. You won't be lost or rudderless without your childhood bear. Instead you'll be wiser about what really matters to you. About how to choose the next thing you acquire more carefully. You'll be more resilient when it comes to thinking critically about what makes up who you are. 

We have all of us learned exactly what its like to have way too much crap. Time now to learn the opposite. To see just how much we can get rid of before we feel we've lost too much; it's more than you think.