Thursday, January 01, 2009

An Unclutterer Challenge: The 365 Item Toss

It's the dawn of a new year and a new opportunity for all of us to become more thoughtful about our consumer habits. The collapsing economy has made things look pretty bleak, so most of us are probably doing a pretty fair job of cutting back on unnecessary spending. However, there's a tendency during times of economic insecurity to want to hold on to stuff we already own, even if much of it is clutter. What if we need it someday? How can we sell it now when we won't get the best price for it? If we'd just fix it up a little bit, it would be perfectly fine to use.

That's faulty thinking. Hanging on to clutter will do nothing to improve our lives, but if we let it go, not only will we benefit, but other people who need the usable stuff will benefit, too. I wrote a post six months ago called
Embracing Charity in Tough Economic Times in which I talked about the importance of letting go of unnecessary things even when times are difficult. Take a look if you'd like a little boost for your motivation.
Also six months ago, Dave Bruno started his 100 Thing Challenge on his blog to see just how much less he could live with -- in his case cutting back to 100 things. He has a few special rules that give him a little flexibility (for example, underwear and socks don't count, nor do shared family items like the dining room table), but the overall idea is to simplify his life to the point that he can live comfortably with a minimum amount of stuff.

In spite of its enormous appeal to me, cutting back to 100 things seems pretty daunting at this time in my life. So I've come up with an alternative that's less drastic: I'm going to challenge myself to dispose of 365 things over the course of the next year. Obviously, that's one thing a day, although I'll bag up a bunch of stuff to donate at one time, so I won't be driving to my local charity drop-off every single day. I'll have a few "rules," too:

1. General trash doesn't count. The only things that count are individual items that are tossed (something useless that's been sitting around for awhile due to my inertia), or items that are donated or sold.

2. Handing things off to friends or relatives counts only if they really want the items or the items belonged to them and were left here.

3. Following Dave's lead, if I do buy something new, I'll throw away the old thing first.

4. I will count as one item tossed the entire box of old tax papers I will be able to shred once this year's taxes are filed. All the effort involved in disposing of that much paper should be worth something. These are the only papers I will count because I would otherwise reach 365 Things Tossed in a couple hours of paper purging.

5. I may need to modify or add to these rules as I get the process started, but I vow not to violate the spirit of the challenge.

I'll mention my progress occasionally in my usual blog posts on various consumer issues throughout this year. If any of you would like to join me in this challenge, please do so. If you feel like commenting on your progress, I'd enjoy hearing about it.

And, to close with something for you to ponder further, here's a bit of dialogue from Garrison Keillor's 2007 book, Pontoon, set, of course, in Lake Wobegon, featuring a feisty character named Evelyn talking to her daughter, Barbara, whom she didn't want to burden after her death:

"When I die," Evelyn told her, "I want you to be able to sweep out the place, take the sheets off the bed and the clothes out of the closet, clean out the medicine chest, and hang out a For Sale sign. Two hours and you'll be rid of me. I'm a pilgrim. I travel light."

When you get down to the basics, we're all pilgrims. So, here's to a simpler, saner year for all of us as we work toward travelling as lightly as we can!

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob


Tameson said...

I know how hard it is to declutter, and when you reach a certain point it can be overwhelming and the trash becomes the destination of least resistance. But I would like you (and your readers) to consider alternatives to the trash for disposing of your excess. For example, all those tax documents that you will be shredding shortly can be used as browns in compost or a layer in a new lasagne garden. Chickens and hamsters are also very appreciative of cast off shredded paper. Worn out t-shirts and torn jeans can be offered up on freecycle for rug weavers/braiders. Does your transfer station have a swap shop? Could old toys go to a daycare or books go to the library for a book sale fund raiser? I know searching out alternatives kills the momentum of disposal, but I personally couldn't live with the guilt of heaving 365 things into the already overtaxed landfills.

I'm in for the challenge though. I could stand to be 365 things lighter (my kids too!).

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Hi, Tameson --

I agree that uncluttering doesn't just mean trashing everything and I'm an advocate of making the small effort it takes to dispose of things more thoughtfully.

I have easy access to a couple of charity shops that take almost anything in reasonably good shape, I've unloaded lots of books at the library if I couldn't sell them to the used book store, and both CraigsList and eBay are useful places to sell some items. Freecycle is a great alternative for the rest.

However, I do tell my uncluttering workshop participants that if they're truly drowning in stuff, are desperate to make a major life change by getting rid of it, and especially if they're tackling the situation alone, trashing it is a better alternative than insanity! More responsible ways of letting go will come in the future.

Thanks for your comment. I hope you'll keep me informed about your progress!

Frisky Librarian said...

Dang! I already had two big clean-outs this year, though I'm sure if I looked hard I could find more to get rid of. I love decluttering.

I should get my mum to sign up. She is moving house in two weeks and I helped her do some packing. This dialogue was repeated over and over -

Me - "If you haven't used it in ages, toss it."

Her - "Ummmmmm."

Me - "Chuck it!"

Then she packs it. I can see myself going through the same stuff when she goes.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Hi, Frisky --

Interesting that you mentioned your conversation with your mother. Evelyn, the character I quoted from the Garrison Keillor book, had to clean out the huge amount of stuff left behind by her estranged husband when he passed away and that helped motivate her to make sure her daughter didn't have to go through the same long process. But not everyone is comfortable with that approach. Maybe sometimes it's just too hard to admit our mortality. Still, there's no U-Haul at the back of the hearse!

Brava to you for your uncluttering efforts! If you come up with 365 more things to toss or give away, please let me know.

Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of getting rid of stuff. I love my books - can't get rid of those. I value photographs - it makes me cry to even think of getting rid of a photo of my mother who passed three years ago. Don't mention scanning and tossing, it's still wrenching. However, I have papers in boxes from college!!! Those I can quickly go through (just in case) and get rid of - I have tossed two wine boxes of papers - it's wonderful. And clothes!!! I have lots of clothes I never want to wear again.
Keep up the good work all - 363 items to go!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Hi, Renee --

Congratulations on your uncluttering success so far!

Papers are my biggest challenge, so I know how great it feels to toss them.

Once you're on a roll it's motivating to continue, so I know you'll be counting down your list soon!

Thanks for your comment.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

June 1, 2009

At last, a report on my progress!

I've created categories that I hope will cover everything I come across, although there's always that nice, safe "miscellaneous" cateogry I can fall back on in an emergency. Here's what's been donated, recycled or sold so far, with some samples in each category:

Kitchen - 15 items (mugs, raffia plate holders for paper plates, sports drink bottles)

Decorative - 12 items (candles and holders, pottery bowls)

Office - 10 items (boxes of filing supplies, apple-shaped push pins, a Star Wars checkbook cover that has seen better days)

Clothing - 28 items (the usual old stuff plus a Taiko drummer head band and an LA County Museum of Art baseball cap)

Art - 29 items (art and craft supplies, boxes of photo negative plastic sheets and slide mounts)

Media - 79 items (books, videos; I'm counting as 1 item some 300 or so dvd "screeners" that were sent out from the TV Academy for Emmy voting purposes -- the Academy now has a great program that recycles the dvds by sending them to military personnel stationed overseas)

Household - 18 items (bedding, towels)

Total after five months: 191 items.

I feel certain that I'll make my goal of 365 items gone by the end of the year! Will report again in a few months.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cynthia,
I'm actually ahead of you after only four months - I guess I needed to do this more than I thought! I have gotten 215 things out of my house and I don't feel like I have barely started. But it is freeing and my family is enjoying adding to my list. My philosophy is 365 items out of THE house belonging to anyone.
Good work and let's keep getting rid of "stuff".
Reston, VA

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Great job, Renee! I agree that it is a liberating feeling when unnecessary stuff is finally out of the house.

Please check in again to let me know how you're progressing. Sounds like you'll make the 365 item goal easily.

As for me, well, I feel another closet clean-out coming on and I'm looking forward to it.

Also, we just got a Fujitsu Scan-Snap scanner and a whole bunch of papers are going to be eliminated, thanks to digital storage. Hooray!

Anonymous said...

Hi Cynthia,
I'm done. Three hundred sixty-six items: two old Halloween costumes were the last two items to be recycled.
Since I'm early, I thought I would start over in January. I think I have 365 more things to rid my house. My 10 year old daughter's room actually looks liveable - to your credit!
Thank you for a great motivational exercise. Perhaps you should suggest it to Real Simple for their January issue if it isn't done yet.
Reston, VA

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I am so impressed, Renee! Well done!

I'm not up-to-date with my tally, but I doubt that I've hit the 365 mark yet. You've motivated me to figure it out.

Magazines plan their issues pretty far in advance, but I'll take a look at Real Simple and see if I can submit the idea -- in a letter to the Editor, if nothing else. Thanks for the thought.

Congratulations and good luck on your 365 Item Toss for next year. I'll look forward to hearing about that one, too!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Here's my tally since June, with samples of items donated, recycled, re-gifted, or sold:

Kitchen - 22 items (more mugs, food storage containers, glasses)

Decorative - 37 items (even more candles and holders, holiday decorations, picture frames)

Office - 42 items (apparently there is no end to the extra pens, markers that will dry out soon, 3-ring binders I no longer use, more, much more – best is 7 boxes of scripts that were scanned and eliminated, thanks to the Fujitsu ScanSnap!)

Clothing - 51 items (time to let go of faded turtlenecks, socks with limp elastic, jackets from the 1980s that haven’t seen the light of day since, dated full-length skirts, hats, purses, shoes, some things stashed for when I lose weight and can wear them again – although I remain hopeful . . .)

Art - 27 items (everything from crayons to watercolor tablets)

Media - 79 items (more books and videos; this time I'm counting as 1 item about 150 or so dvd "screeners" that were sent out from the TV Academy for Emmy Award voting purposes – donated again to the Academy’s program that recycles the dvds by sending them to military personnel stationed overseas; audiocassettes [!])

Household - 37 items (towels and bathmats, another blanket, pillowcases, a tiny television, an extra vacuum cleaner)

Total after almost twelve months: 191 + 295 = 486!

Hooray! And I counted only some of the donated holiday decorations; I plan to donate another dozen or so next week.

It’s amazing that I was able to pare down this much in a household that doesn’t appear to be suffering from very much clutter. Also amazing is that I can still see more stuff that we can easily live without, especially more boxes of papers to scan and more decorative things, many suitable for eBay auctions.

The challenge worked for me! How about you?

NellieB said...

What a great idea! I am recommending it to all my friends and clients.

I am approaching my uncluttering a bit differently. After hurriedly packing my collectible and fragile items prior to Hurricane Ike hitting Houston, I pledged to get rid of 20 - 25% of them within the year. And I did! Then I decided for 2010 to eliminate 50% of all I own. I began in mid-December and have had so much fun blogging about it (with the blog keeping me accountable). It's amazing how much stuff I've donated, gifted, recycled, sold, and tossed considering I actually have fun organizing my own home and do it regularly! (Over 203 items have left my home since December 16th and I've still got more!)

Thanks again for the idea!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Congratulations, NellieB! I'm delighted that you found this idea inspiring and even more delighted that you've been so successful at uncluttering.

I can only imagine how you must have felt when you had to pack your valuable possessions prior to a hurricane. Being forced to make choices with limited time under dramatic circumstances does put the ownership of "stuff" into perspective.

Good luck with your continued efforts and please check in to let us all know how you're doing!

Anonymous said...

Dear Cynthia,
I started the 365 Item Toss again last January. Because of some remodeling I went through the entire storage room in my basement. Shock of shocks, I hit 365 items in April. My husband said, do you have to stop? Keep going ... to a 1000? So I'm letting you know, I've hit a 1000 items today September 18. (Five boxes of baby clothes with my youngest at 11, glasses that never got used, clothes that didn't fit.) The game has become wearisome, but I plan to add items as necessary, but I'm not going to set a goal. I'm sure it makes my house sound cluttered, but it really wasn't. It is certainly starting to be a bit emptier, easier to move the vacuum around.
I'm basically saying that this was a marvelous idea. I have talked about it with so many. Thank you for the inspiration.
Renee in Reston

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Renee, that is just fabulous! I'm delighted that you've found the "Toss" helpful and that you continued to unclutter so successfully. Letting go of one thousand items is a very impressive accomplishment. I can understand why you don't want (or need) to set another numerical goal: you've got the mind set now to let go of what you don't need and be very selective about what new things your bring into your environment. You'll be fine.

Thanks for sharing the "Toss" idea with your friends and thanks for checking in again to let us all know how well it has worked for you. Comments like yours are what keep me going!