Photo: That blonde girl
It’s December, that time of year when your friends and family conspire to airdrop a metric ton of new stuff into your house. That stuff will soon join last year’s stuff, and the previous year’s stuff, and stuff from 1998. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“One can very gratefully accept someone’s giving and not have to live with their gift,” says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, a small-space design guru and author of Apartment Therapy. Phew! “You’re not doing yourself or your friend a service by hanging onto the thing they gave you that you don’t like. What you do owe them, however, is to move it on from your home discreetly.”
In fact, busy as the holidays are, it’s the perfect time of year to haul away a load of junk and make a plan to amass less stuff in the future. This is a resolution you can actually keep.
Let me be clear: I’m not going to offer you a Hints from Heloise lecture on decluttering or exhort you to divest yourself of your earthly possessions and live like a monk. I’ll only become a monk if I can carry a MonkBook Pro.
You know where I’m coming from: Clutter wastes money.
Clutter can take up an enormous amount of space in your house or apartment. You might be living in (and paying for) too much space, just to make room for stuff you don’t need. You’ve probably spent a bundle moving stuff that was sitting unloved in your old place and is now sitting unloved in your new place. (It’s okay, I’ve done it, too.)
Do you maintain a self-storage space? About 10 percent of Americans do. Do you ever use the stuff in the storage space? If your $40/month storage space flooded, would this really be a tragedy? I’m guessing no, unless you use it for band practice and your Marshall half-stacks go up in smoke.
When you’ve amassed a garage full of stuff and finally have to do something about it so you can find your car, it costs real money. Ever dialed one of those commercial junk haulers? If you get away for a few hundred, you’re lucky.
When I say “stuff,” I’m not just talking about classic clutter like junk mail and magazines. I mean anything you’re living with, maybe even feel a little attached to, but don’t need: furniture you inherited but don’t love; lousy gifts from nice people; books you read and enjoyed and haven’t read since; anything that has spent a year in its box.
Okay, you’re convinced, right? So why didn’t you do anything about it last year? A few years ago, Gillingham-Ryan had a key insight about why people can’t let go of their stuff: getting rid of stuff is a two-part problem and you have to tackle the two parts separately.
“One was separation anxiety: I’m afraid to let go of it because I’m attached to it,” he said. “But that was actually less of a problem than I thought. The bigger problem was they weren’t really sure where to put it or what to do next with it, and faced with those two problems together, they did nothing. So my goal was to try and create some movement.”
This jibes perfectly with my experience: even after I’ve decided I can live without those old headphones, pants, or books, what should I do with them? Try to get a couple bucks for them on eBay? Donate them to Goodwill? Just put them in the trash?
Gillingham-Ryan’s secret is the Outbox. “Choose one part of your home to collect the junk,” he said. “You need to delegate some place for that and to deal first with separating from it–like, ‘I’m going to take it out of the room and I’m going to pretend I don’t need it.’ And then secondly to deal at a later point with, ‘what am I going to do with it?’ I found that by unhitching those two, things move much more easily.”
The Outbox can be a closet, a spare room, even a designated corner of the living room. It allows you to play a game with yourself: “I’m not going to get rid of Grandma’s vase…but what would it feel like if I did?” (I mean a vase Grandma *gave you,* not a vase containing, well, you know.) InApartment Therapy, Gillingham-Ryan calls the Outbox “a halfway house for clutter.” There’s no harm in taking something out of the outbox after a week.
However, like a band that practices in a self-storage space, stuff in the Outbox rarely gets an encore. Gilligham-Ryan explains it with a very design-guruish metaphor: “Just like a rock in water looks so shiny and attractive, when you take it out of the water it gets dry and unattractive. Things that have been put in the outbox look a lot less attractive once they’ve sat there, and people then very willingly figure out the second problem, which is what the hell to do with it.”
So what the hell do you do with it? One lesson I quickly learned after moving a ton of stuff into my Outbox is that *you don’t have to be responsible for making sure all of your former stuff reaches its proper place in the universe.* The universe will take care of that for you. (That is my guruish pronouncement for the day.) In the summer, I make frequent use of the world’s best recycling technology: the urban street corner. I recruit my daughter to help me carry stuff down and put it on the corner with (or without) a FREE sign, and it’s usually gone within minutes. Yes, this includes stuff I could probably get $6 for on eBay: maybe I’m out $6, but I just spent one minute getting rid of this item instead of half an hour.
(This does not mean I am giving you license to put your moldy couch out on the street in the rain.)
You probably invented a makeshift version of the Outbox last time you moved. It happened to me. I love to read. A few years ago, we moved to a slightly smaller apartment. I boxed up all of my books, and when we got to the new place, I unpacked the most important stuff, the cookbooks and a couple of other categories, and promptly ran out of space. The rest stayed in boxes for a year. At some point I realized I didn’t even know what was in the boxes and didn’t care, and if I needed to reread one of those books, I could get it from the library. I donated all the book boxes to charity.
Receiving stuff is a fact of modern life. Keep the good stuff and let the rest proceed swiftly to its next destination. When you get good at this, it’s fun. It’s traveling light, home edition.
And you want to know a secret? The absolute best thing about getting rid of stuff is that it makes room for the shiny new stuff you really want.
This is why I never made it as a monk.
Matthew Amster-Burton, author of the book Hungry Monkey, writes on food and finance from his home in Seattle.