Ground Rules #1: What is a “thing?”

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#599: Toolbox (Freecycled October 2014)

[NOTE: in this post and hereafter, any numbered object refers to one of the 1000 things — for example, #1 was a golf training aid, #65 was a cat litter pan, etc.]

Very early in my “1000 things” project, I confronted the need to define what a “thing” was. This was not as easy as I’d first thought it would be. It would have been easy to think of this project as a simple task to get rid of junk, but I wanted it to be more than that.  One of my attachments to my things was feeling the need to be responsible stewards of them. I’ve developed an awareness that when I throw things out, they may leave my life and consciousness, but they stay on the planet in some form. So simply labeling my things as “junk” and throwing them out en masse was not an option for me (although there were some occasional exceptions to this).  This made the project a lot more work than perhaps it needed to be, but for me the effort was worth it to help me understand my relationship with things and how to make it a healthier one.

This point is worth explaining a bit more: I’m not a hoarder (although I do have my share of nests scattered about the house), and there’s no obvious pathology here. But that’s the point: I’d come to feel that my things were taking and even draining my energy on some level to an important extent and in ways I was barely aware of. Sort of like all the “vampire devices” in our homes — appliances that use energy even when we’re not using them — except I suspected that our things are rather more effective, and thus more serious, vampires.

So eventually, I settled on this definition: a thing is any single entity which required my time, attention, or energy as an individual, separate entity.

This resulted in a particular and to some extent idiosyncratic set of criteria for determining what a thing was. For example:

  • A pair of anything (shoes, gloves, socks, dice, etc.) counted as one thing because I didn’t have to deal with each item separately; I could deal with it as one thing, that is, one block of time/attention/energy, one decision (although also see #34-47 below).
  • A box or bag of something counted as one thing if I could deal with it as one thing — for example, a bag of some small plastic objects (#91) which were clearly throwaway material. However, a box or bag of something counted as separate things if I had to consider each item separately, for instance some old tins of shoe polish (#418-421), which required going through a box to sort the good ones from the bad ones.
  • Size didn’t matter. So, for example, when I donated my 2000 Honda Accord (#153), the car and everything I left in it counted as one thing, because I only had to deal with it as one thing. However, when I threw out a road map that I’d salvaged from the car (#130), that also counted as one thing, because that particular road map required my time and energy to decide what to do with it.

153 honda accord

#153: 2000 Honda Accord (donated to Vehicles for Change, June 6, 2014)

  • I also grouped things to make one thing. For example, we had a huge number of pencils, pens, and other writing utensils collected over years of my son’s childhood. I had to sort through all of them, but I wasn’t going to count each one; that was too crazy even for me, and I didn’t really need to pay attention to each individual pencil or marker. So I decided to sort the writing implements and put them into five separate bags by type (lead pencils, colored pencils, pens, markers, and crayons) and counted them as five separate things (#66-71), even though I was able to get rid of them all at once (on Freecycle, where they were a very popular item).
  • Pieces of paper were the hardest thing to define. It seemed crazy to consider each piece of paper in my office as a single thing, even though I often had to look at each sheet to decide what to do with it. As a compromise, I decided to use folders as my “thing” unit for papers; each folder I emptied (or some cases culled) counted as one thing.
  • For me in this project, a thing had to be physical, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be. You could just as easily do a purging project with non-physical things like a credit card account or an email account for instance. Or maybe with digital things as well. I’m not how well the “1000 things” structure works for those, though; I’ll have to think about that one a little bit more.

I also can’t say that I followed this definition and the related criteria to the letter every time. For example, early in the process I counted seven pairs of shoes counted as 14 things (#34-47), although I think this was also because I had to go sorting through a large bin of shoes to match them up, but clearly this was still a bit of a gray area.

As you can see, defining a thing ends up being a pretty individual and personal decision to make. You may think, for example, that a single road map, or in my case at least 10 road maps (#111-119; 130) is hardly worthy of thingdom. But then again, road maps have long had a relatively special place in my pantheon of things (which is another story), so you probably don’t care as much about them as I do.

So, when you undertake your own “1000 things” project, feel free by all means to define a “thing” in any way that makes sense for you. As I describe my experience with the project, I’ll explain more about how my particular way of defining a “thing” made sense for me.


One thought on “Ground Rules #1: What is a “thing?”

  1. Pingback: How to finish a 1,000 things project fast(er)… | Ideaphoriana

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