A Trip to the Hardware Store

Finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

loppers 53117                                             My new pair of bypass loppers*

Remarkably, I bought several things at the hardware store yesterday.

You may ask, what’s so remarkable about that? Why write an entire blog post about a trip to the hardware store?

There are several reasons I found it remarkable, and you might too.

Before the 1,000 things projects, buying a bunch of stuff at the hardware store was as unremarkable for me as it would be for most people, but doing the 1,000 things projects made me much more aware about buying stuff. It changed the default setting on my buying habits from “yes, if” (as in “yes, buy it if I want it”) to “no, unless” (as in “no need to buy something unless I really need it”). This zero-based budgeting approach to buying most consumer items has become habitual for me.

So I haven’t been buying much stuff, period. In fact, this is only the second time this calendar year that I went to a store and bought non-consumable items (that is, things other than groceries, restaurant meals, gas and car repairs, fitness classes, massages, and various miscellaneous items). In February, I bought several sets of bed sheets to replace ones which had worn out. This time, I bought stuff for yard work: work gloves, masks, yard waste bags, and a pair of “bypass loppers.” The main reason for buying this stuff was to make it easier to clear out the invasive bamboo in my back yard (and the reason for that is another, longer story for a future post) and to tackle the poison ivy and other vines that are stressing the black cherry tree in my vacant lot next door.

So it was remarkable that this trip to the hardware store was remarkable for me; it was out of the ordinary instead of being ordinary like it used to be. I noticed the difference and appreciated it.

The second reason this trip was remarkable was that I bought the pair of bypass loppers* even though I already owned a pair. The old pair was seizing up and difficult to use on the thicker bamboo stalks I’ve been cutting down. I could have taken the loppers to the hardware store and asked them to sharpen and fix them, but I didn’t want to wait that long. Still, I asked myself if I was being wasteful somehow or if buying a new pair was really necessary, and I surprised myself a little by deciding to buy them. I think this was because I’d been focused more on the “No” part of the “No, unless” formula; I’d been saying “no” to buying new stuff a lot more than I had in the past. When I bought the bed sheets, the “unless” part was a little clearer; there, the decision was basically “no, don’t buy these new bed sheets — unless you want to stop sleeping on bed sheets with holes in them.” Well, in that case…  For the bypass loopers, it was “no — unless you want to make the task of cutting down bamboo easier, faster, and less frustrating.” Sometimes, as in this case, “unless” makes more sense.

The third reason this trip to the hardware store was remarkable was that my decision to buy the new pair of loppers became easier once I decided I would give the old pair away; they still worked fine, and someone else could sharpen and fix them if they wanted. This  is another big change for me: being comfortable with simply giving stuff away when I didn’t want or need it anymore instead of saving it up Just in Case I might need it Some Day. So I noticed and appreciated this too, that my willingness and ability to generate gratitude by giving stuff away had notched up a level.

Buying stuff thoughtfully instead of being mindless about the process, taking the time to appreciate something when I do buy it, and making sure that stuff circulates through my house instead of simply accumulating there, is all pretty mundane stuff. But the real takeaway from my trip to the hardware store, besides the things I bought, is that finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight, right under my nose.

So, time to go cut some more bamboo and put that old pair of loppers on Freecycle. Anyone need some bamboo stalks?

*Of course, it was also remarkable that I was learning what these things were called for the first time in my life…


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

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

Objection Manual 2786 AF 216
(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…

tools that remain 316
(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…

Getting down to the wire — sort of….

Time to admit that setting deadlines based on numerical targets doesn’t really work for me…

(Shredded documents, #2571 – 2640 range, February 2016; recycled)

It’s getting down to the wire now in terms of meeting my goal of getting rid of 3,000 things by 2/25. I’ll be gone on the 23rd-25th, so I really only have less than a week to get rid of 360 more things. Complicating matters is the fact that I have gotten rid of most if not all of the easy stuff; another complication is that this is the busiest time of the year for me work-wise. How am I going to do this?

One distinct possibility, of course, is that I won’t; it will become simply another deadline that slips. But despite the obstacles, I’ve felt motivated to try.

I’ve made a lot of progress in the past week or so, focusing mainly on office stuff, which explains all the bags of shredded documents (#2,571 – 2,640 range; see pic above). More on that later on in this post.

Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely that I will meet this deadline now, which has caused me to realize a more important thing about myself: that setting deadlines based on numerical targets doesn’t really work for me. I set them; I try to follow them; but I never meet them when it comes to my 1000 things projects. I’ve missed all three of my major deadlines, and I’ve pretty much missed every intermediate deadline I’ve set for myself as well. Why does this happen? Why don’t they work? What would work better instead?

One reason setting deadlines based on numerical targets hasn’t worked for me is that numerical targets are really not that motivating, even for someone like me who’s been using this counting approach in the first place. Numerical target deadlines are too abstract; ultimately, they conflict with some of my more important values such as thoughtfulness.  It’s more important for me to get rid of 1000 things as thoughtfully as I can than it is to get rid of them by a certain date. The date itself is arbitrary; the meaning of the things is not.

So, for example, at the beginning of last week, I set a goal of getting rid of 45 things in one day (because that would get me to an even number, 2,600), by cleaning up the piles of papers in my office, going through my folders, and getting things more organized. I got rid of three things. What went wrong? Clearly I don’t care about the number 2,600. So my stated goal and my target led me astray.

What do I really care about? I care most about being able to find things in my office when I need to; I’d like to know where every item is, or at least know where to look to find it quickly. It bothers me when I find a folder or document and don’t really know where to put it, or when I think it belongs somewhere, but I don’t remember where. I would like to have things more organized than that; I would like to be able to find and file important papers and documents and folders quickly, but even after all the culling I’ve done in my office, I’m still not there yet. So that’s a more motivating goal than getting rid of 45 things.  That’s a goal that can last beyond counting.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up counting yet; counting is still good for me, because it gives me a sense of the vast volume of stuff I’ve accumulated that has kept me from being where I want to be. But I think it’s a goal that eventually I can outgrow: there will be little or no need to count once everything I own has identifiable purpose or value. Conversely, one of the reasons that counting 1,000 things (or whatever the target number is) is helpful is that it provides a structure for getting to the point of knowing where or not something I own has purpose or value. And it is still motivating for me as a measure of progress — just not as a target.

In this regard, another recent insight that I’m finally putting to good use is the difference between an aspiration and a goal.  I’ve aspired for some time — years really — to have my office be a place where I know where every item is, or at least know where to look to find it quickly. But, I recently realized, it has always remained an aspiration because I hadn’t really resolved to do what I needed to do: go through every file cabinet drawer, stack, and pile and systematically cull everything out that I could, and do a little organizing in the process. I’d been doing it selectively, but not comprehensively; in particular, I’d been skipping over the difficult places.

So, my new goal is this: to have my office be the first place in my home where I can say that everything I own or have there has identifiable purpose or value.  Call it the proof of concept area if you will. I think this goal will help me move forward more effectively than a deadline based on a numerical target. It might also help me move forward in other rooms of the house. I can see myself working through this process spatially; since my home office is in an upper corner of my house, I can imagine myself moving spatially from room to room, next my bedroom and then the bathroom and then the music/exercise room and onward, sweeping through the entire second floor and then down to the first. Well, it’s fun to think about anyway. In practice I might find myself choosing the next easiest place next. And there are still a few stubborn nests to contend with in my office: the electronic stuff, the books, and especially the mementos. So I’m starting with the papers, and I’ve made a lot of progress — hence all the bags of shredded documents — and there really is an end in sight: three and a half more file cabinet drawers, three file holder racks, and three piles, and that’s it for the documents. It’s certainly a far cry from where I started.  So reaching that goal is more important to me than reaching my 3,000 target by my previously set and admittedly arbitrary deadline.

The question still remains: by when? Although setting deadlines based on numerical targets hasn’t worked for me, maybe setting deadlines based on a desired goal will work better. So I think that will be my new target for February 23rd: finish the process of going through my papers. For me, that would be a very inspiring goal to reach…

Nests as a Form of “Treasure”

They’re all over the house — stashes of things that are part treasure, part junk, part something else…

1000 things photo 1014

One of my more functional nests — recycling, kitchen stuff, et al…

Lately, I’ve been too busy writing to post in my blog, if that makes any sense. So, it’s time to resume sharing some of what I’ve been writing. One of the chapters in my book (yes, it’s turning into a book; at least that’s the plan) about the 1000 things project is currently entitled “Treasure.”  It talks about my relationship with my things as treasure — things I value, things I overvalue, things I haven’t yet clarified their value. One of the topics in this chapter is about those stashes of things scattered all throughout the house that seemed to be part treasure, part something else. I came to call these numerous clusters of things scattered about the house “nests.” One of the reasons I did this is captured in this preview of a Scientific American article about birds’ nests:

“From twigs and grasses to sheep’s wool and horsehair, birds weave their world into their nests. The homes they leave behind thus provide clues about their lives and their environment…”

Yep, that described my nests pretty well: I had woven my world into these collections of objects, and these nests provided clues about my life and my environment. Just as some birds build nests out of a variety of found objects, similar structures could be found in my own house (reflecting that propensity of the affluent members of my species).  Although the parallels are not complete — I was not using my nests to attract mates or raise young, for example — the label stuck because of their key characteristic as a group of disparate objects collected together in a discrete area for the purpose of storage or retrieval.

It was very helpful to identify nests in my house for the 1000 things project for several reasons:

– They were usually areas which contain things that I wanted to get rid of.
– Many of the nests were very visible, so it made a noticeable visual difference whenever I cleaned one up.
– Even for nests that weren’t so visible, for instance nests in the basement or in closets, it made a noticeable psychological difference whenever I cleaned one up. I could look at that area, remember how it had looked previously, and feel some sense of satisfaction by noting the difference.
– Nests were discrete areas that I could focus on one at a time if I wanted to.

My “discovery” of my nests was one of the main ways I encountered the ambiguity of having treasure/a lot of things. Some nests were full of things that clearly had value to me, such as the kitchen cabinets where pots and pans and dishes were stored. Some of these nests were clearly useful, such as the coat tree and the recycling area, and some of them were highly organized, such as the closet shelf which had almost all of the board games (as well as a few other unrelated items).  And not all clusters of things were nests; for instance, a group of family pictures on top of the dining room cabinet was there for sentimental value.  So even though some of my nests may have look disorganized to an outsider, they didn’t necessarily bother me if I knew what was in there and where everything was.

Most of these nests, however, were not quite so benign. Many of these nests had long ago lost their purpose or never really had one to begin with: things just gravitated to certain places and settled there without any particular purpose or value. As a result, a nest became a problem if it was difficult to find anything within the nest. I felt this when I couldn’t find something I wanted to find because there were too many other possessions in the way; I thought I knew where I’d put it, but it wasn’t there. This happened most often with nests consisting of lots of little objects or piles of paper.  Things that were sometimes difficult to find in my house — candles, flashlights, duct tape, particular documents — were difficult to find because I wasn’t consistent about which nest I placed them in and because there were so many possible nests to choose from if I couldn’t remember where I’d put the thing. My home office was a particularly daunting collection of nests — or was it one giant nest?  Even after considerable clutter control efforts had made a noticeable dent in the problem, a lot of stuff remained.  What bothered me the most was that sometimes important things got lost in these nests.  I would find something in a nest and realize that this could have come in handy if I had thought about it.  This happened even if I’d thought I was being organized. For example, I would create a folder on a particular topic of interest and put related items in there for future reference. That sounds pretty organized, doesn’t it? Except that I would not remember to look in that folder for awhile, sometimes even for years.

Most of my nests were a combination of treasures and castaways: mixtures of things organized together for good reasons with things thrown together for no apparent reason.  As a result, nests were also one of the main ways I encountered the ambiguity of having treasure.  Like most people, I valued my personal treasure trove of things, except when they were so numerous that they got in the way — which is when I saw those stashes for what they really were: when they turned into a hoard…

Ground Rules #2: Why 1000?

Tao, tithing, and the appeal of Large Round Numbers… Featured image

#1000: book donated to the LittleFreeLibrary, January 6, 2015

It’s a fair question to ask — why 1000 and not some other number? There were several reasons for my choosing 1000. First of all, I wanted the project to make a big enough difference that I would notice.  I wasn’t sure what I would notice exactly, or how much of a difference getting rid of 1000 things would have. But I did hope that the process of getting rid of 1000 things would result in a less cluttered house, greater insight into my relationship with my things, and bringing my relationship with things into a better balance. I also hoped that completing the 1000 things project would get me closer to an ultimate goal of having every physical object I own have some sort of identifiable purpose or meaning (more on this and other goals in a future post).

Still, why 1000? Let’s face it, the number 1000 is an arbitrary one to some extent.  Or more precisely, it’s a number shaped by our biology — we use a base 10 numbering system because we have 10 fingers and 10 toes. If we had eight fingers and eight toes, my target number would most likely have been 512 (which is 1000 in the octal number system). And like many people, Large Round Numbers appeal to me. So 100 was clearly too small, although I can now see a “100 things project” as a way for someone to get started on this journey more easily.

But I also arrived at 1000 through another route. I’ve always been intrigued by the Tao concept of the “Ten Thousand Things,” which refers to the manifestation of physical reality in its infinite variety, or more simply, “everything that exists” that we perceive in the “phenomenal world”. I have long interpreted this concept to mean that the myriad of things in the material world threatens to overwhelm us by their sheer numbers and blind us to the deeper truths of existence.  In other words: too much stuff keeps us from seeing what’s really important. While it’s questionable that’s what the concept really means — in theory at least, we can have as many things as we want so long as we can recognize the Tao in each and every one of them — in practice this is really, really hard to do. Instead, we are overwhelmed by our physical possessions and become at once thoughtless and excessively possessive of them. At least that’s how it felt to me.  So I wanted to see if getting rid of some things would make me more appreciative of what I had — more likely to see the Tao in them, I suppose, although to be honest that’s a retrospective notion which really wasn’t a motivating idea during the process.

How I got from 10,000 to 1,000 then was by applying the concept of tithing to the project. Tithing is generally defined as a voluntary contribution of one-tenth of one’s annual income to support a church or clergy. My adaptation of this definition was to get rid of one-tenth of my worldly goods to a higher purpose, or in this case set of purposes: greater self-insight, charity, a better life in some way.

That may have been a far more roundabout way to arrive at 1,000 than was necessary for me, or that would certainly be necessary for you. I imagine that some people have so many things that they could get rid of 1,000 of them and not even notice. For most people, though, if you get rid of 1,000 things, I’ll guarantee that you’ll almost certainly notice a difference in how your house looks — and how you experience the things in them.