What’s Next: The Punch List

Reflections on finishing the third 1,000 things project #2:
The end of counting (for me anyway), but not the end of decluttering thoughtfully…

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(#3,000-something: inhaler, trashed)

Now that I’ve finished the third 1,000 things project, where am I now? What’s next?

1) My ultimate goal is in sight. I am still not to the point where everything I own has identifiable purpose or value, but that goal appears to be in sight. At this point, I’ve at least looked at just about everything I own. That is, while I haven’t looked at every single garden gadget or piano music book or kitchen utensil, I know where almost everything is now.  There are no surprises left as far as I can tell, not counting the occasional random object or two like the inhaler pictured above (#3,000-something; trashed) which I found the other day behind a radiator in the living room, where it apparently fell unnoticed some seven years ago. (I threw it away since it was well past its expiration date of July 2009).

It will take a lot more work to get to my ultimate goal, but I’ve been making a list of all the things that need to be done to get there — a punch list. The list is somewhat long — a few dozen items or so and counting — but it feels finite and doable, and a couple of items are already done. (More on this list below.) In the process, I will also apply what I’ve learned to go through the remaining things thoughtfully, quickly, and (even more) systematically.

2) I’m done counting, at least as far as this initiative is concerned.

Perhaps you’ll find it no surprise that I’ve gotten tired of doing so much counting. It’s a lot of effort, even for someone like me who clearly likes to keep track of such things (as this project has demonstrated all too well). More importantly, I’m not sure it’s necessary for me to do it anymore. One indication of this is that I forgot to take a picture of the tool cull. It would have made quite a picture — all the tools spread out and ready for sorting — but I think it means that I was ready to be done with counting.

The process has taken me to a new place – a place beyond counting. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but it is to me. One of the things I (re-)learned about myself, particularly as the result of culling, scanning, and getting rid of some of the documents I saved is how much I like to keep track of things. (More on that in a future post.)

There was a small part of me that wanted to continue counting to the (bitter) end, just so I can say how many things it took for me to reach that point. However, I don’t think the final ‘exact’ number would mean much to anyone else since everyone’s personal hoard and experience varies so much. And for that matter, the exact number is unimportant to me as well, as I don’t plan to ever have to be in the position to have to count my stuff again, although you never know — maybe I’ll end up sharing (& counting?) someone else’s stuff someday… 😉

At any rate, it’s official now — I’ve gotten rid of a few more things since I reached the 3,000 mark and haven’t kept track of them, so I’ve literally lost count of the exact number of things I’ve gotten rid of. Still, I’ll probably be able to do an approximation and have a rough number at the end (3,500? 4,000? more?), which should be good enough for my purposes.

3) The process of decluttering thoughtfully continues. It’s easier now because I’ve become practiced at it and because what remains at this point is mostly stuff that I really want to be thoughtful about.

For instance, there are many things I want to spend more time documenting, such as my road map and CoEvolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review collections. I started going through these during the third 1,000 things project, but I did not finish dealing with them then. They hold a lot of personal stories and reminiscences that I’d like to (re)visit before getting rid of them, so I will go through each of these individually (which is more than 200 things in all), at least until I get tired of the process (or who knows, decide to keep some of them). There are a few other things like that — mementos, childhood toys — which will likely require individual attention as well. Although spending this much time on these things may sound contradictory to decluttering quickly and systematically, I think that the prospect of having my ultimate goal in reach will motivate me enough to get there even without the discipline or structure of keeping count.

“What’s next?” also raises two other important questions: When will I get there? And how will I know when I’ve arrived?  Answering the first one is simple if arbitrary: even though meeting deadlines doesn’t motivate me , I still find them useful. So let’s say — June 12th? That’s about 11 weeks from today; if I average about three tasks per week on my list, that will get me there, give or take a little time for upcoming events (vacations, graduation ceremonies, etc.).

4) The punch list.  Answering the second question is also arbitrary but less simple because, as I’ve come to realize, the value and purpose of the things I have changes over time. Some things that seem important to have now may not be important later. The physical, mental and emotional space I’ve created, and continue to create, by getting rid of things changes how I view my remaining possessions.  In this sense, my ultimate goal of being able to identify the purpose or value of everything I own is unattainable, or at least it’s not a stable, unchanging point. I’ll have to define for myself what it means to be satisfied with where I arrive. So for now, I’ll define it to mean “getting rid of everything on my list,” and I’ll call it a punch list to remind myself that the process has a certain finality to it: when the punch list is done, the project is done. Period. (At least until the next project starts, that is… ;-))

How to finish a 1,000 things project fast(er)…

Reflections on finishing the third 1,000 things project (#1)…

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(Excerpt from Objection Manual, American Future, 1973, #2786; scanned/recycled)

My third 1,000 things project is now complete. I finished it on Saturday, March 5th, when someone on Freecycle picked up a toolbox and tools that were the result of a massive tool cull. That was nine days later than my goal of finishing by February 25th, but it was still a lot faster (a little over 4 months) than my previous two 1,000 things projects in 2014 and 2015, which took about 8 months and 9 1/2 months respectively.

How was I able to finish this 1,000 things project so quickly? There are several reasons:

  1. I’ve gotten better at this. No two ways about it: I am much better at the process of getting rid of stuff thoughtfully. Have I gotten good at this? I don’t really know what that means, but I suppose that’s true.
  2. A lot of the things in this round were office documents. (For example, see #2786 above.) As I’ve noted elsewhere, I tend to count office documents either in terms of folders or files, depending on what I do with them. Although I’ve found it’s not easy to get rid of a lot of office documents that quickly, it’s pretty easy to go through them at a steady clip in concentrated periods of time, or sprints.
  3. It can actually be easier to get rid of things that have some value or meaning to me — mementos, collections, or simply items I’ve had for a really long time. This one surprised me; as I neared the end of my 3rd and final 1000 things project, I got to the stage where many if not most of the things I was going through fell into these categories.  I wanted to sort through them thoughtfully but thoroughly because they were meaningful, and also because I learned that the process was worthwhile to me. So I thought it would take more time, but what happened instead was that I was more likely to count individual items as one thing rather than as a group of things. For example, the document pictured above was a sales training manual for a summer job I had selling cookware (don’t call it “pots and pans!”) during college. It triggers lots of memorable stories for me; the inner voices I heard were more questions than commands (“Is this document worth anything to me or anyone else if I keep it? Nah, I don’t think so…”), and I scanned a copy of it for digital posterity. So of course I counted it as one thing and value the time, energy, and attention I spent on it individually.
  4. Going through items which were numerous and needed to be considered separately also sped up the count.  The tool cull was the main example of this; I treated each individual tool or box of fasteners as a separate thing, so that there I ended up putting 85 separate items in the tool box and then giving all of them away at once through Freecycle.

You might feel differently about such things, and to some extent it makes the distinction about what one ‘thing’ is to be fuzzier again. But that’s OK; as I’ve said before, what counts as a “thing” to count is to a large extent a personal decision. Given that one of the key lessons of my 1,000 things projects has been the power of possession — things embody our time, energy, and attention — it makes sense for me to explore that and to take that into account as I get rid of things.

Another reason why this works fine for me and doesn’t seem inconsistent is that some items are presenting me with the opportunity for more detailed reflection. For me this is part of the process of letting go; it’s the ‘acknowledging’ part that some other books I’ve read on decluttering also recommend. But I take it a little further than some others recommend or might prefer; instead of a sort-of generic ‘thank you for your service; bye now’ acknowledgement, I’m spending some time looking at some of the items in more depth, as with the Objection Manual pictured above.

This also makes sense for the collections I’m getting rid of because they embody a lot of me: memories, identity, etc. So for me it’s worth the time to go down memory lane with them. This makes it harder to get rid of things more quickly, but in terms of the count, it still speeds the process up overall as far as I can tell. It’s also particularly easy to do with items like journal writings, personal notes, and these collections because they retain a lot of value for me; there are things I can learn from revisiting them that have been, and can be, very useful for informing my current life and plans moving forward.

Speaking of moving forward, what’s next for me? More on that in my next post…

Tool Cull

Taking me to the finish line…

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(tools that I kept after my tool cull {#2921-3005; Freecycled})

The tool cull took me to the finish line in my third 1,000 things project. It’s worth a post of its own for that reason alone, but there are some other good reasons for telling you about it.

How it came about: I was getting down to the wire in terms of meeting my goal of getting rid of 3,000 things by February 25th. I eventually let go of reaching that deadline on time, but before giving that up, I thought of a few strategies that might help me get there sooner, even if not on time. One of those strategies was to identify groups of large numbers of things that would help me get rid of a lot of things quickly. One of them I used extensively: going through my home office with the goal of getting my documents truly, finally, organized. This worked quite well for me, and I only have a few more folders to cull through, and lots of space in my file cabinet.

The other large number of things I used to get to 3,000 was my set of tools. I knew I had an excess of tools which I would be more likely to find and use if I actually knew what I had and where they were. This became the “toolbox project”  with the goal of going through my toolboxes, creating two sets of tools to keep in two toolboxes (one for me, one for my son), and disposing of the rest. I knew I had a lot of extra tools of some types — wrenches and small screwdrivers for example. I didn’t really know if my son wanted a toolbox, but I figured it would be there if and when he wanted it, and if not, it would be easy to give away to someone else.

Another motivation for doing it this way was remembering my Dad’s tool collection. He had seven toolboxes — no, actually I can’t tell you how many toolboxes he had. There were at least seven toolboxes filled with tools, along with a voluminous amount of tools that weren’t in toolboxes. Then there were the numerous toolboxes filled with something else: the toolboxes filled with pennies, all rolled up and organized and labeled by year; and the toolboxes filled with all sorts of other things that I don’t remember now and really don’t care to try. I only have two toolboxes plus various other tools, but I’m still young relative to my dad when he passed away. Maybe he only had as many tools as I do now when he was my age. Maybe he got started down the path of tool hoarding with a collection of my size. Better to cut this off now while it’s still manageable. That alone justified for me the OCD overtones of going through every tool and sorting them out.

And so I did. I emptied my two toolboxes and collected all the others I could find, laid out all the tools where I could see them, and grouped the tools loosely by type. Then I started identifying the tools I wanted, starting with easy ones like hammers and screwdrivers. I took one of each (including variants, like a traditional hammer, mallet hammer, etc.); if I had two of something, the second one went into my son’s toolbox; anything left over stayed in a third pile. I also kept a separate toolbox for myself which I had taken from my dad’s collection and kept because it has a well-organized array of tools (socket wrench set, a few screwdrivers, toolbit disk, and a few other items) that wouldn’t all fit in my toolbox.

Even after filling two toolboxes, a fairly useful collection of leftover tools remained: a couple of hammers, various screwdrivers, pliers, and a wide assortment of wrenches, including an almost complete socket wrench set. Some things were new or almost new, like a set of open-ended wrenches. Some things were older or even a little messy like the socket wrench set, but they were still useful. I also decided to give away a couple of ‘vintage’ tools — an old Yankee screwdriver, a small metal plumber’s wrench — to add value in a different way: maybe the recipient would appreciate them more than I would.

Ironically, I gave away a toolbox during my first 1,000 things project (#599) about 17 months ago which I thought I didn’t need at the time. It turns out I could have used it now, but I didn’t feel any sense of regret at not having kept it.  This is a good thing and worth noting, so I’ll remind myself again here: getting rid of that toolbox was more rewarding to me than keeping it, even though I had to go get another one.  The notion of “you might need it someday” is often a myth, and keeping something can be more of a burden than getting another one. (More about that in a later post.) I thought about going to a thrift store to buy a cheap toolbox, but I decided to buy a new one at the local hardware store instead; it cost about $18, which with the time cost savings was probably a bit cheaper than driving to the nearest thrift store. I’d planned to replace one of my old toolboxes with this new one, but after trying out the new toolbox, I decided I actually like my old ones a little better — one is metal; the other is a plastic toolbox from the old Hechinger’s home improvement store, so it’s an antique of sorts 😉 .

Then I filled the new toolbox with the culled tools, along with a bag which included a funnel and boxes of various fasteners (nails, screws, etc.) and put it on Freecycle. As you might expect, this was a very popular offering, and I found a recipient quickly. I even got a response from someone  who didn’t want the tools but simply wanted to acknowledge my generosity:

“Hi neighbor, Very generous tool freecycling you have got going there! I am not really in need but I thought I would let you know I think that is a pretty cool gift.”

So in this way the tool cull was a highly fitting end to my third 1,000 things project because the tool cull had it all:  stories, inner voices, possession, treasure, gratitude, curation, thoughtfulness, and of course completing the cycle on several levels.

Where am I now, and where am I going next? Good questions — reflections on that in my next posts…

Unraveling

Thanks to the 1000 things projects, my life is starting to unravel. This is a good thing…

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Recently my colleague Michelle Pacansky-Brock posted the above quote to Facebook, and I shared it on my FB wall since I agree with its insights with these qualifications: unraveling can be a release as well as a pull; it can happen at any adult stage of life; and it only goes anywhere if it crystallizes into resolve, as in the resolve to unravel a mystery…one’s life mystery…

One of the reasons I’m embracing the notion of unraveling is because it has a duality which mirrors the duality I’m experiencing as I start to make major changes in my lifestyle as a result of my 1000 things projects.

Unraveling has two main meanings (definitions from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/unravel).  One is the idea of coming apart, as in disentangling, disengaging, or otherwise causing the separate threads of something to come apart, often with the idea that something’s failing or beginning to fail. Still, unraveling in this sense can be good or bad. Unraveling is bad when something is coming undone that we wanted to keep together or did not want to fail: a sweater, a ball of yarn, a marriage.  Unraveling is good when we’re untangling something that we want to untangle: electrical cords, shoelaces, bad habits. Or something that we wanted or needed to fail — whether we knew it or not.

The second meaning of unraveling is to find the correct explanation for something, to clear up (for instance, to unravel a mystery) or to resolve the intricacy, complexity, or obscurity of something. This notion of unraveling can also be good or bad. Clearing up a mystery or finding the correct explanation for something may sound like it’s a positive, but we might not like what we find once the explanation is revealed or the mystery is solved.

What makes the difference between good unraveling and bad unraveling? Part of it is the issue of control: when we think of our lives as unraveling, that’s usually bad, but when we think of unraveling our lives, that can be something altogether different.  And of course, it’s impossible to talk about unraveling without talking about raveling. When something is raveled, one of its key characteristics is tightness — knots and tangles that keep things in place because they’re tightly bound together and difficult to loosen. So there are places where we want knots to hold (ties, shoelaces, sailboats) and ones which we want to loosen (power cords, necklaces, muscles).  Another key characteristic of the process is patience. As anyone who’s ever unraveled a really tangled rope or a box of power cords or a nagging mystery knows, the process requires more patience than most things we do, I think.

The other important part is also captured by the above quote: a pull (or a release) towards living the life one wants to life, not the life one is supposed to live. This is how my 1000 things projects have produced some unraveling in my life, in both senses of the word:

– They’ve enabled me to loosen a few things that have been knots or tangles in my life, to the point where I can start disengaging myself from them, most notably changes in my consumer behavior — what I buy, how I buy things, and how I use them.

– Getting rid of so many things thoughtfully has also helped me resolve the intricacies, complexities, and obscurities of my relationship with my stuff. It is helping me unravel the mystery of how to build and maintain a healthy relationship with my things.

In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some of the ways in which my life has started unraveling for good…