November 13, 2013

The Half Life of Stuff

If I had a garage sale every item would have one of these tags. Take my clutter - please!

I can imagine a world with no possessions, but I think we are a long way from achieving that particular goal. In the meantime I recommend you get rid of 1/2 of your possessions as soon as possible. After a well deserved rest, start on getting rid of 1/2 again.

I call this the half life of stuff, and I learned of it through experimentation in the NBA research laboratory. This is what I have found.

Within a certain amount of time any item loses half of its initial appeal and/or usefulness. Over the next period of time it loses half of the appeal that is left, and so on. Eventually the item ceases to hold any appeal at all at which point it degrades into toxic waste. Now it is clutter, and it is harmful to your health.

Almost ten years ago Linda and I gave away half of our total possessions over a couple of days. Some was easy, like the massive desk that we did not feel like dealing with when we moved west. Other things, like our personal library, were harder to let go. But let go we did, and we never looked back.

When we drove away from our home for good to move to the coast we pulled a small trailer of possessions behind us. It wasn't even full. We felt like a basement full of burden had been lifted from us as we floated toward the Pacific.

Since arriving here we have added very little to our collection of things. Rather, we have exercised a constant cutting in order to make our 560 square foot beach home as minimal, efficient, and comfortable as possible.

There is nothing that we have given away that we miss now or regret tossing from our lives. Nothing.

Now we are feeling another half life of stuff coming up, which means that before long another 50% of our things are going to be removed from our lives. I can't wait, even though it will be a bit harder this time since we aren't starting with as much. It is getting down to the nitty gritty of possessions for us.

Not everyone is ready for a 50% cut overall, although I really do recommend you give it some serious thought. You could start with a smaller project to get a taste of the liberation that is possible with minimalizing more.

For example, pick a single closet and cut its contents by half. Or dig into that junk drawer and pull out 50% of what is in it. Same with the garage, or the storage locker, or medicine cabinet, or kids toy box. The result will be the same in every case - it feels great!

Imagine your home with 50% fewer possessions. Its easy if you try.


  1. Another great post,

    We are going through this process now. We have not been brave enough to get rid of 50% of our stuff in one go though. Our method is to keep going over what remains. As we move through this process, we are finding that we are becoming more ruthless. The strange thing is that the less we have, the less we need.

    Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts Gregg.


    1. Darren,

      It is fun to discover how little you need, as you are finding out. I also find that the fewer things I have, the more I appreciate them. I am more grateful for what I have.

      Good luck moving forward with your project - being ruthless is the way to go so you don't have to look at things more than once... or twice.

  2. Anonymous11/13/2013

    Ten years ago my mother died. I called the junk removal people to cart most of the stuff away. She had a three story rooming house and nobody wanted the furniture and old appliances. When we moved to our current house I brought about five boxes of her stuff with us. It is residing in the basement doing nobody any good. Whenever I think of getting rid of it I kind of waffle and make excuses and so these five large boxes still sit there. I will simply have to take the bull by the horns and just take it to Goodwill but is is rather hard and I think in five years these boxes will still be here. Marilona

    1. Marilona,

      That is a tough one. It is really hard to let go of things like that. It is scary - will we somehow be less because we don't have these special things?

      I recently recycled a file of appreciative letters and cards sent by students, parents and grandparents over ten years of teaching. I read through them one more time. I could feel the voice in my head telling me I should clutch all that paper to my chest and never let it go.

      But I have those memories, and my life has already been changed by the love the cards represent. I let them go.

      You could video or photograph sentimental possessions before giving them away. Or keep one or two things and give away the rest. Don't wait five years. Do take the bull by the horns.

    2. Marilona,

      My mother died suddenly in 2005. She left behind many unfinished quilting projects, magazines, newspapers, closets and closets full of stuff. We gave things away and hauled things away in dumpsters. I took her library home and housed the boxes in a spare room for a year. Then I saw a report on a morning news show about Dee Williams (google her if you like, she is amazing). The short of this rather long story is that I put my mother's books in my car one day and donated them to a non-profit in our area that sells books to help pay for their expenses. My mother took my children there a lot when they were young. As the director helped me unload my car, she told me I looked familiar. I didn't know her, so I could only imagine that she knew my mom (I look very much like her). I mentioned my mom's name and told her my mom had passed and that these books were her personal library that I didn't have room for. She remembered my mom and all the years she had brought my kids to the gardens. She was very happy to have her books.

      Many people are in need of the "too many things" we have. I felt really good about letting go of my mom's books to an organization that could benefit from her collection, especially an organization which had enriched her life and the lives of my children. (I gave most of her quilting fabric to a friend that quilts. She was so happy to have it).

      You will always have your mother's memory. I have never been sorry for any of the things I have let go of.

      I hope this helps you. The feeling of freedom is amazing.

  3. Anonymous11/13/2013

    Great post, and I appreciate the inspiration to keep shedding stuff. I've been working on eliminating possessions for the past 2 months in preparation for a move. The most difficult part for me has been to stay firm against the on-going push back from family - E.g., Why get rid of this when you might need it later? or This was your grandmother's are you sure you don't want to keep it for your daughters? One funny comment came from my 15 year old daughter when I asked her if she wanted to save something I was looking to unload. She said "Mom, no one wants your crap." So very, very true!

    1. Anon,

      Moving is awesome motivation for a thorough cleansing. It would be tough in a family setting as everyone would have a different tolerance level for parting with possessions.

      Thanks to you and your daughter for a good laugh today. Words of wisdom.

    2. I loved the comment, "Mom, no one wants your crap".

      I look at some of the things that I have been hanging on to, and think, will they mean anything to the next person when I die? If the answer is no, which it generally is, I toss it or give it away.

  4. Anonymous11/14/2013

    This just made me laugh out loud! My spouse is a tech. When we moved from house to apartment 8 years ago one of the things that came with us was a huge box (How huge? you ask--it originally housed a 32-inch CRT television, that's how huge) of cables. The box sat taking up space in our storage area for 8 years and not once did tech-guy ever have a use for even one of the cables carefully cataloged and stored therein. SO, a couple weeks ago a co-worker mentioned that he was borrowing his brother-in-law's pick-up to take a number of things to the electronic recycling place and agreed to pick up my huge box of cables and cart it away as well. Three days later tech-guy got a call for a small-scale installation job and--yup, you guessed it!! So, guess who's giving up half her next paycheque for cables . . .


    1. Susan,

      It's Murphy's Law in action.

      Linda and I gave away things we figured we might need years down the road. We decided to get rid of them and buy them again in the future IF we really needed them by then.

      Having said that, a well stocked workshop allows a certain amount of self-sufficiency. That might include lots of cables. Sorry about the dent in the pay check.

  5. I love doing this! Creating some challenge in life is so fun, and once you realize how little you can live with it gets easier and easier. Moving always helps too! My husband and I have moved 15 or so times in the last 6 years and we always end up getting rid of more each time. Currently there are three of us and a small dog living in 700 sqft. We have plenty of room, though I wish we were on the beach too! Thanks for the little nudge; I am off to declutter again!


    1. MarieG,

      It is fun, and it does get easier. To me it feels very natural.

      Wow - 15 moves in 6 years is a lot, but so many opportunities to lighten the load.

      Minimalism and living simply are like learning to play an instrument - you are never done, but with practice you get better at it all the time. Enjoy the decluttering!


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