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The Pressure of Stuff

The attraction of minimalism is that your possessions don’t become bigger than you. You remain in control. To be minimalist, you must value flexibility over accumulation. I am not a minimalist; not strictly, anyway, but I sorta am.

That paring of the essential and valuable stuff from the clutter is an exercise, a test, in the more general ability to prioritize and distinguish the most meaningful (of anything) from the less so. If you can do that with your stuff, it stands to reason you can do that with with your priorities in life and focus on the important, ruthlessly excluding the mundane and the little whenever possible. Maybe if you get good at it, you can smooth out the friction that continually grinds against the wheel of self-actualization in the form of lost focus, procrastination, taking too long before moving on to the next thing, or the other things that drag us down.

Some people are a slave to their stuff. In the worst case I’ve ever heard, my great-grandmother, Cleona, was such a packrat that her children and grandchildren had to get a huge dump truck to haul away all the shit she had….  more than once. At one time there were papers in her oven for crying out loud. Obviously, most people don’t have a disorder of that magnitude.

But neither do I want to be like others. Family members I know who have dozens and dozens of boxes of things, the contents hardly used, if at all. So many piles of stuff. And it’s sad, because the more you have, the more you have to maintain and tidy. And the bigger the potential mess, the harder it is to get yourself (or others) to clean up, especially if you lack the discipline in the first place to restrain your accumulation.

To my mind, it just chains them down to where they are, a psychological anchor keeping them in the same place, psychically as well as physically. Sometimes you need to let go of most of the things that remind you of the past if you don’t wish to keep living there.

But it’s hard letting go, isn’t it? 

Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winner, demonstrated loss aversion: once we acquire something, we’re irrationally averse to giving it up. In fact, losses are about twice as powerful as gains. It doesn’t matter how small the item is. If it’s a lollipop, and we only kinda wanted it in the first place, it’s fair to guess we’ll be about ~2x not-kinda willing to give it up.

A related fallacy is the “sunk cost fallacy”. In fact, it’s so ingrained that I have little doubt that half of my readers are going to stare at my next sentence in disbelief, which is: It doesn’t matter how expensive something is when considering whether to keep it. But surely the value matters?–yes, but only the value now. If you wouldn’t actually need to replace it if you gave it up, it’s unfair to think you’re giving up its actual price in terms of value. But if, for example, you purchased a set of barbells, and you like working out, then of course they give you value, because they make working out easier. Not because of their price tag.

How can you combat these biases? By feeling good when you get rid of stuff.

Go get rid of some stuff and free your life a little. 

Instead of accumulating more, consider organizing what you already have and utilizing it more often.

As possible criteria for what to keep and what to toss, consider focusing on things that enable you to be more knowledgeable, productive or creative. Let go of things you “should” keep. Let go of loss aversion and let go of sunk cost. Instead of thinking how expensive something was, consider what it can do for you now. Better yet, consider what it will actually do for you rather than what it could do for you. There’s no reason to think that just because you’re reminded that you have something that you’ll magically start using it a lot more if you haven’t for months or years. Another tip: utilize the power of community. If there is anything you don’t use except rarely, consider asking a neighbor when you need it. (One more excuse to build social ties is good!)

A good rule of thumb is “if you haven’t used it for 1 year [or 6 months, or 3 months], throw it out”. Throw out more than you think is reasonable and–I think–that’s the point at which reasonableness begins.

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