Since the beginning of this year I’ve been meditating on the idea of living with less, and for the last few months I’ve been working on what I call “the purge”—a conscious effort to reduce my possessions by donating, giving things to family and friends, and recycling.
Having too much stuff is a first world problem in the extreme, and I still have more possessions than probably 95% of people in the world. But now that I’ve made visible progress, I realize that for me, getting rid of things is less about living with less than it is about carrying less.
There are two kinds of things worth having: things that are truly useful, and things that have personal or emotional significance. I tend to overdo it when assessing both traits in items. I hold onto a lot of things “just in case” they become useful in the future (I kept two burnt-out lightbulbs on my kitchen counter for several months. Why??), and I also like to keep things to document my life. I call the latter category my “archives,” which I half-jokingly maintain for the benefit of my future biographer. I recently realized that every time I add something new to the archives, it diminishes the significance of everything else I’ve kept. There’s no point in keeping an archive of personally meaningful ephemera if the stockpile becomes so large you never peruse any of it.
My strategy now is to keep only the truly useful or meaningful items, take photos of the rest and then discard it by donating or recycling. Going through my stuff is giving me the chance not only to reduce the quantity of physical items I have, but also to reflect, pay those items their emotional due, and move on. As long as I have a record that I once had whatever artifact, it’s less important for me to actually carry it through life.
From an ethical shopping standpoint, reducing your possessions to your most loved and useful items can make you more conscious of your shopping behavior. If every new thing you buy is more conspicuous in your home, you may consider each purchase more carefully. My current possessions are the result of 20-odd years of unconscious accumulation. My goal is to accumulate dramatically less over the rest of my life, and for each item I acquire to have real value.
The purge has been way more time-consuming than I thought it would be, so I still have a long way to go. But I figure it’s definitely easier to go through my stuff now than it would be to do it in another five or ten years. I’m sure my future biographer will thank me.
Are you a minimalist, a hoarder, or somewhere in between? Have you ever conducted your own purge of stuff? How did it go?