Disacquiring: The Delight of Relinquishing Things

I don't miss any of this stuff

I sold an old scientific calculator the other day for $30. A few months before I sold an old desk for $5. I felt the same rush, same excitement each time. Not because of the money; $5 won’t even buy a six-pack of decent beer. Rather it’s the relief of divesting yet another thing that I don’t really need.

We like to acquire stuff, to keep stuff. We like to buy things, to make them ours. And then even if the deepest untouched recesses of storage containers and closets we hold on to this stuff. It doesn’t really matter that much if those things are necessary, useful, or will make us happy. From $3 baubles to billion dollar companies, we put reason aside and embrace the rush of getting new stuff.

Nothing will wake you up to the literal and figurative weight of stuff like moving. You get the opportunity to go through most of your things, and then enjoy the hassle of schlepping this stuff to your new place. Oh, the joy! But even when you’re in one place this stuff takes up space, and it creates a creeping sense of attachment. You need more space to store your stuff, these things you look at only when you move. This stuff makes decisions about doing interesting things like moving around the world a tad more difficult.

Travel, especially long-term trips and relocations, is a great reminder that you don’t need that stuff. You don’t need it, nor does it do much for your happiness. With a few exceptions I’m continually surprised by what stuff, that “this might be really useful” stuff, I never use. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 3-day trip or a 3-month trip.

Most people aren’t going to move around the world, of course, but even at home we’re shackled to these things. It needs to a place, it needs to be protected, it needs to be managed. If you’re going to spend time managing anything in your life, let it be something useful.

How to get rid of stuff

Getting to the point where you can really start making a dent in your pile of stuff isn’t easy. You have to stomp out your attachments first.

Organizational gurus have all kinds of strategies to share about how to organize your stuff, including how to identify what you don’t need to keep, how how to pay them to help you. Lame.

Here are some simple questions to guide you:

  1. Is it an irreplaceable historical item or family heirloom? (Grandpa’s buffalo nickel)
  2. Is there a backup or alternative to the thing (old CD’s you’ve already ripped)
  3. Have you used it in the last 2-3 years (this is a generous time period)

Even when you’ve assessed a thing it can be hard to get over the emotional attachment.

  1. Sell it: you’re getting some cash and that thing gets some use
  2. Donate: it’s getting some use and not filling up a landfill
  3. Break it: seriously, if you’re going to throw it away, break it. Tear it, shatter it, just do it decisively. Now you have to throw it out.

Selling and donating are by far my favorite ways of getting rid of stuff. Selling is great because not only is someone paying me to take the thing away, they come to me to do it. Amazing. Donating is a bit more work, but it assuages my reluctance to get rid of something that is perfectly good and still useful.

Be intentional about your things

Regarding the feeling of comfort our things give us, you should pick broad categories of things that you’ll allow yourself to keep, but make it intentional. Make this decision ahead of time. It’s like having a category of expenses you can splurge on.

I hold on to books and maps, specifically. I don’t need most of the books I have. Many of them I have not opened up in years and will likely not open again for years to come. If they suddenly went missing I would probably not notice. I just love having books around and being able to occasionally grab one from the shelf and start reading with a cup of coffee or an IPA. It’s my attachment, and it’s a conscious decision I’ve made ahead of time.

There’s nothing wrong with holding on to a few tchotchkes and family heirlooms. But you’re probably overestimating the future use or enjoyment you’re going to get from most of the things you own.

The things you own end up owning you.

Originally published May 2012

Are you a Django developer? Have you found yourself wishing you could reuse the code you write or looking for some guidance on building standalone Django apps?

Check out my upcoming book, Django Standalone Apps: A developer's fieldguide to developing reusable Django applications the first guide written specifically for writing standalone apps.