We have cabinets on the kitchen island in our house. There is one cabinet on the end that is filled with the kids plastic cups. We put the plastic cups there because it was a sizeable storage area that was close to the floor. At the time our youngest could easily reach in and pull out a cup. The aspect about this particular cabinet that is most interesting is the cups and bowls in it. They are a cacophony of colors and shapes. More interesting than the kid-friendly designs is how these cups multiply over time. They seem to do it faster than fertilized crabgrass on a lawn. In short order there’s so many of them that you can’t fit them all into the cabinet.
Last year I got fed up with the overflowing cabinet. The kids would take out cups and leave them all over the place half filled and then the next time they got thirsty would go back to the cabinet and get another cup. I wanted to end that practice so I completely cleaned out the cabinet. I threw out everything that wasn’t an absolutely beloved keepsake. I was so aggressive about my purging that I realized I may run into a problem when my kids friends came over. I thought I may have gone too far and wouldn’t have enough cups for when all the visiting kids asked for a drink after running around. I shouldn’t have worried, a few months later the cabinet was overflowing with kids cups again. I have no idea how it happened but I realized this cabinet was a great analogy of how we handle stuff in the rest of our life.
There are hoarder shows about people who acquire tons of crap and never throw it away. These are the extremes and like most reality TV are probably staged. But also like most reality TV the foundation is based in the realities of the human experience. We like crap and it piles up around us. I recently was reminded of this firsthand as I was helping a friend to finish his basement. There were tons of junk computers, old fish tanks and other odd knick-knacks sitting around that didn’t get thrown away. Quite often we found ourselves moving the stuff from one side of the room to the other so we would have space to work in the areas we needed to.
Why do we collect things?
We have to ask ourselves, why do we collect these things and let them build up? There are lots of studies that point out to how having a ton of crap can add stress to our life. There are whole religions built around this premise. Beyond the theoretical, it’s just common sense. Having more things in life to manage adds work, and more work leads to more stress.
I think the best example most people have experience with is with old computers. I wonder how many readers of my blog have an old computer or five they spent tons of money on that they just can’t bear to let go of? The simple reason is that we were alive when computers cost thousands of dollars for a desktop. Three years later they were barely worth the scrap price of the metal they were made of. I don’t think I’ve ever met a human being, including myself, who truly accepts that fact. Those old computers are like anything else we spend a lot of money on. We have created a perceived value in our head. It’s an anchor point we can’t pull ourselves away from.
Media is another example of this. It’s one I’m very guilty of. I can’t get rid of the last vestiges of my old CD collection no matter how much I logically understand that there’s no value to the physical media. if anything the physical media is a liability because I can’t really back it up conveniently, it’s difficult to transport, and the readers of that media Ie CD players are becoming less and less prevalent in our world. On that note, how many people still have boxes overflowing with VHS cassettes? Movies, music, and even video games, products that are all essentially software, are all becoming a service. The old physical mediums that used to be the transport mechanism for the software have disappeared as our connectivity has expanded.
No matter if it’s software-based entertainment, inexpensive baubles we have gotten from the store on clearance or really anything else we can acquire in our life, there is a tendency to want to keep it and not get rid of it. ultimately what happens is no matter how big of a space we have we fill it up with crap. We think we need more space and buy bigger houses. And then even more space gets filled up with the clutter of life.
Is life better if we are lean or if we keep everything we can reasonably manage to keep?
I alluded earlier to the fact that there are actual religions based on the fundamental concept of owning nothing. I don’t need to be a religious scholar to understand the basic premise behind the benefits of hyper simplicity in your life. It’s easier to concentrate on the value of the intangibles of life such as relationships. It’s also much easier to be mobile and flexible in how you go about doing what your doing. There is only everything to gain if you have nothing to lose. I can’t forget that while being a religious monk who has taken a vow of poverty is conceptually neat, it’s the far extreme. Most people do not get that far along with their tendencies. The reality is that we all have a preference where we lean towards keeping most things or eschewing most things. We can’t forget that most folks are not absolute. The vast majority of people who keep things, tend to get rid of some stuff. Conversely the people who lead a lean life still keep some things for various reasons.
What Are the Benefits to the amount of stuff we keep?
Now I will be the first person to admit there are benefits to both being lean and to keeping all your stuff and letting it pile up for as long as you can. They mirror the benefits of a lean organization that has just-in-time inventory and that of a warehouse operation. The lean organization can pivot more quickly and doesn’t need nearly as many resources to manage their business. The warehousing operation always has what you need.
I recall when I was with a colleague and they had some connectivity issues with an old piece of AV tech. I offered for them to come back to my house and check my cable selection because I think the solution they needed could come from an older, and somewhat obscure, cable. We got home and I pulled out the four tubs I had I loaded with all of the different cables that I had collected over the years. The cables inside probably had not been looked at since I threw them in my tubs. She gasped when she saw my collection and said I was insane. She went on to exclaim that my wife was an angel for putting up with all this when she saw how many cable tubs I had. That being said, in short order I was able to pull out the ancient cable that met her needs. It probably sat in that tub for 10 years or more before it was used. That experience and many others I have had over the years all put points on the scoreboard for hoarding.
There is an asterix to my argument for the benefits of hoarding that I have to point out to be fair. It is that hoarding is only valuable if there is a way to quickly pinpoint what you need. In my case I have different cable tubs for different types of cables. No matter if it’s A/V cables, Data Cables, or Power Cables, I can quickly look for what I need and determine if it’s in my collection or not. For those that pile stuff up willy nilly it’s a different story. In those cases the poor unfortunate souls who are eventually tasked with sifting through the massive piles of stuff, they have an experience akin to dealing with the world’s largest surprise egg. They never know what they are going to uncover and in many cases it’s multiple copies of items that were bought when the hoarder couldn’t find the original. There is really no benefit to this type of hoarding except possibly as fodder for reality television.
Managing Multipliers: How can we best manage this stuff?
As I said, if you keep lots of stuff, then there’s only one rule to manage it: Keep it organized. Always keep it as organized as you can. Labels on bins, shelving, and all other methods of organization will work. Stuff is only valuable if you can easily get to it when you eventually need it. There is a whole other article I could write about how this idea of organization is one of the major underlying problems of the digital age. As media creation has become democratized, there exists limitless media. It’s not just on Disney Plus or Spotify, it’s on our phones and in our cloud accounts. Anyone who has ever tried to find an old digital photo in a repository that contains tens of thousands of photographs taken over the years understands this problem. Data scientists the world over are working on automating this organization and they are making great strides. I get excited about every new tool and long for the day where I can say, “Hey google, pull up that photo of Me and Michele showing our feet when we were sitting in the hammock in Cozumel.” Unfortunately that’s still fantasy today and I am not sure we’ll ever get to a point where it’s all automated like this, at least not in my lifetime.
The more practical and interesting side of multipliers is the question of how do you manage getting rid of stuff if your tendency is to collect? There are a few methods I’ve used over the years to success.
Regular purging: I think the best option is regular, and purposeful purging. My father used to like to tell a particular story about my grandmother where he vented about her continual drive to eliminate things that she considered waste and clutter from her life. Apparently my father owned a copy of the first issue of the Incredible Hulk. He left it with his things at his childhood home after he moved out and my grandmother threw it out during one of her regular purges of the flotsam and jetsam of her household without checking in with him. I think he shared the story with me because he felt I was uniquely positioned to commiserate with him. I had run a comic book and collectible store in my early college years and had collected thousands of comics during that period of my life. He knew I was keenly aware of the value of a copy of the Incredible Hulk #1. I, of course, would listen to dad every time he told the story. I would agree vehemently that it was horrible for her to have done that. I would remind him again about what an injustice it was to lose such a rare find and share the crazy high value of that book today. In my mind I was always thinking, “Thank you to the grandma’s of the world for giving me a job trading in very rare books” I knew that if the majority of those comics weren’t destroyed, then I would not have had a job at that store. I never shared that part with my dad. He just wanted to be pissed at grandma about that particular incident and I let him. We all are allowed to be pissed at our parents from time to time.
I believe the anti-hero of this story is actually my Grandmother. She always maintained a tidy house. I don’t recall ever seeing piles of stuff laying around it. The household always felt inviting and comfortable. The most cluttered part of the house was actually my grandfather’s garage and even that was neat and organized by most standards. The man just had a bunch of tools in a small space and managed to organize it as best as he could. I’m also sure grandma was forbidden from going into his area. I think on balance there was much more value in teaching the benefits to keeping a clean and neat house versus the value of one rare comic book. Grandma influenced three children and nine grandchildren, not to mention dozens of nieces and nephews over several generations. To the best of my knowledge all were influenced, even in small part, by how grandma maintained her household. The lesson with this is that regular purging is a good thing.
The second important point about regular purging comes from the period of my life when I decided to get out of debt. I was fiscally foolish in my 20’s when I didn’t have a wife or kids. It didn’t help that it was also the period in American history that was experiencing an explosion in the growth of personal consumer debt. I was along for that ride and that meant I had credit cards with big balances, lots of them. After I got married, discovered Dave Ramsey, and realized less debt equals more freedom. As part of my eliminate debt mania I sold everything that wasn’t absolutely needed regularly to drive revenue for my debt retirement plan. I would go through all my stuff, keep what I couldn’t bring myself to part with, and sell the rest. After everything in that round was sold, I would then look at my progress and get a feeling that I could do better and I would go through everything again. All of a sudden I could part with some of those things I couldn’t part with the first time. I got better in justifying the elimination of the stuff mentally. I probably went through all of my stuff three or four times and was awarded eBay power seller status as a result of my heavy use of the platform during that time.
The big lesson here is that regular purging needs to be very regular. It’s a process, a skill, and it gets learned through repetition. You start to get better with justification for getting rid of things. For example you ask yourself questions beyond the standard “Do I really need that?” and move on to questions such as “How much am I actually saving by keeping it vs. buying it again if I ever need it?”. The answer becomes apparent that what your really are considering is the delta between what you will sell something for and what it’ll cost to get it again. All of a sudden the benefit of keeping most things disappears. Keeping something and having to continually manage it is usually not worth the difference that you get from selling it and buying it again if you need it. This is assuming your going to sell something and buy it again for a higher price. If you re-acquire it for what you sold it for then the only difference is in the value of convenience in having it close at hand.
A second option in managing multipliers is to start fresh with nothing. I did this with my computer server and my music. Back when the world kept MP3’s on local computers I used to have all my music in iTunes. FYI, I have an OCD completionist mentality. As my music collection grew it got very unwieldy. I decided to transition all my MP3’s to the cloud for just the bands I listened to. But it didn’t change my behavior, I was still in add mode, not subtract. Eventually I looked at what I had in the cloud and realized there was too much junk in there and I’d really like to organize or start from scratch all over again. Google couldn’t help me here. As much as I’d love to just tell my phone “Hey Google, delete everything in my music collection from Megadeth except for my favorite studio albums” that tech doesn’t exist yet.
This is a bit like managing debt using bankruptcy. If you liquidate all your debts through bankruptcy, then technically your starting fresh, but you haven’t changed your underlying behavior. Blink and someone will tell you that you need to get a card to build your credit back up. Most people can’t comprehend living without a credit score, and so they aquiesse. Next thing you know there is another pile of debt. Starting fresh with nothing is a very good concept, but really only if you have changed your underlying behavior. I haven’t done this with my life yet, but it’s something I think would be an interesting experience. Pack my TV, a computer and my Dog and move into a new empty house with just a chair and a desk. I say that but I know it’s a fantasy. I’m not ready to live that lean. I’m a dreamer and I have a bad tendency to collect bits and pieces to future projects I intend to work on.
The final point I want to make is that I’ve discussed this from a practical standpoint, but this issue of collecting is more of an emotional conversation. When I reflect on the emotions involved I keep thinking back to one of the missions from Grand Theft Auto V. While chasing some thieves who stole Michael De Santa’s boat, the younger mobster Franklin asks the more seasoned Michael why he keeps an expensive boat that he doesn’t enjoy sailing on. Michael responds “I just like looking at it”. I think that sums it up, why this article exists and why collecting crap we rarely use and letting it pile up is something that so many people do. I like to think about the projects I’m eventually going to do with my stuff. Some people like remembering a time when they used it or think about when they will get to use it again. Most of the time the point of stuff, isn’t the stuff at all. It’s the feelings we get from the stuff.
This article is all about the physical management of stuff. It makes great points on how to try and fight crap creep. I just wish I had good answers for dealing with the emotional elements of keeping and/or getting rid of stuff. That would be information I think all of my readers would really benefit from. Unfortunately I’m not a psychology expert and I can’t write off the cuff about how to manage our emotions better so that we are also managing our stuff better. You know, I think I used to have a book around here on the topic of managing emotions. Unfortunately it’s nowhere to be seen. I guess it’s buried under some of this stuff. Apparently it’s definitely time to finish writing this article so I can get off this computer and start another purge while I look for the book. Now that I think about it the first place I should check is the kid’s cup cabinet. I’ve learned form experience that you’ll never know what’ll turn up in there.