Thomas Hintz

Less Stuff

Thomas Hintz . 15 Jul 2010

Default Of Life

in being alive
the drive to survive
leads to an accumulation

to find security in less
you must accept no excess
it's time to break the addiction

misplaced trust
and the unfounded faith in more

The Cost

When you buy a car, you pay the sticker price, but you are also taking on a cost much greater than the sticker price of the car itself. If you ever want to use the car you must maintain it, pay for gas and insurance, and repairs. And those are just the obvious costs. What about somewhere to store the car? Keeping it clean? Upgrading the stereo? The time it takes to do all of these things, is also a high cost. It doesn't wash itself or fix itself. Even if you don't do any of the maintaince yourself, you still have to put the time into finding a mechanic, and making sure they do a good job, and don't rip you off.

Everything in life has cost, not only in the sticker price, but in the maintenance, in the organization, and just in the context switching of your thoughts about it. It's easy to think that buying something will make your life better. It's much harder to realize, that being without it, will be best.

Are you excited and happy when you buy something new? Why? It's because you think that your life will improve when you have it. But there is also a cost to everything that you own. In reality, that cost is probably a lot higher than the thing is worth. Or, at the least, higher than you usually think.

Background

As I grew older, I accumulated more stuff. This eventually became very costly in terms of my thoughts and my time. The more stuff I accumulated, the more time I had to spend thinking about it and organizing it, and of course, trying to find things amongst the other things. Eventually I got sick of this and decided to see if life was that much worse without so many things.

I realized that throughout much of history, most people didn't have much and they survived, so I obviously don't need very much to survive, but the real question, is whether the benefits of having stuff outweighs the cost. Without as much stuff, will I be as productive? Will I have less joy? Less fulfillment? Less time? Less money? I decided to find out.

Over the course of a few months, I got rid of most of the things that I owned. I now, other than my bicycles, have less stuff than it takes to fill my small closet. In fact, my bedroom itself is void of everything but a carpet, and a small stand that my little netbook sits on. The closet contains everything else. One caveat is that I am renting a house with a group of guys and the kitchen and living spaces are already furnished. But when I do have my own place, I will only need minimally more things.

The best part is, my life is significantly better. My room is always neat and clean; I no longer have to spend time finding things, I can do my laundry in one load, I have more time to focus on things that matter, and I don't feel near as attached to things as I used to. I've put a lot of effort into only keeping the things that I use and where the cost of having them is less than the value I derive from them.

Advantages

I also don't miss anything that I got rid of. This really surprised me. I thought that I would desire many of the things that I had, but I don't even remember what I had! Obviously they didn't make my life much better since I can't even remember what they were.

Another advantage of having a minimal amount of stuff, is that you are much much less tempted to buy new stuff. The more I got rid of, the less desire I had to buy more stuff. I no longer found pleasure in buying something, my mind was now focused on deriving value from what I had, and only desiring more when it will actually be worth it.

It seems that buying stuff is often similar to buying and smoking cigarettes. Cigarettes do a lot of harm to your body, so not only is the money you spent on them a waste, but it is actually making your life worse. Buying stuff is often the same way. It initially seems like it makes your life better, but it actually makes your life worse. You are essentially paying for something to make your life worse, that's a sucky deal.

Another big advantage is the freedom. It is mentally and emotionally freeing. When you know that you are able to do so much on so little, it really gives you more confidence in your ability to survive and to enjoy life. It is also very freeing to your mind. Your mind will actually feel less cluttered and more productive, as crazy as that sounds.

I would say that, anecdotally, my life is better. I am more productive. I have more joy. I have more fulfillment in my work. I have more time. And I have more money because I am less prone to spend it on things that I don't need.

Method

The best way I've found to achieve the optimal in ownership of things, is to slowly move things to a storage location for awhile, until you realize that you really don't need it. For me, I will take something that I think I may not need, and move it to the basement. I then leave it down there for awhile. Later, I will go through the things in the basement and throw out anything that is still there. If it is still in the basement, it means that I don't miss it enough to make the trip to the basement to retrieve it. You definitely know that you don't need something if you aren't even going to go to the basement to retrieve it.

The goal is to move things to somewhere that takes effort to retrieve things from. This way the need for the thing must overcome the effort required to retrieve it. This sounds silly, just because you would think that a barrier as small as walking down a few flights of stairs can't possibly make a difference, but it can. I've found that I often will not even remember what is down there, so as long as I don't go down and refresh my memory, I do just fine without the stuff.

I actually enjoy the days that I get to throw out all of the things that I don't need. It is freeing to throw out all of the unnecessary stuff that built up in the basement.

What Is Worth It?

Somethings are worth the cost. If I had a fifty mile commute to my job, and I had to provide my own transportation, then it may very well be worth the cost to have a car. The things that are worth it will be very obvious. If you decided to put the car in storage and walk, run, or bike to work, you would probably notice that it is a lot more work than when you had a car.

There are advantages of the technology and things that we have developed today. You will definitely have less time and you may be less satisfied if you were to reset yourself back to a few hundred years ago. Washing clothes by hand, the lack of electricity, the lack of running water in your house, will definitely cause you to spend more time on things that are aided by those services. Do not take this essay to mean that you should get rid of every modern convenience. Instead take a hard look at what things provide value greater than their cost, and alternatives to the things that have a high cost.

Et Cetera

Another cost to having things, is the attachment that inevitably develops. I don't know anyone who is able to own things and not develop some level of attachment towards them. This may not be bad in of itself, unless it comes time where the cost of ownership increases, or a better alternative surfaces. If you develop an attachment to it, it will be harder for you to give it up, when you should.

And don't use the excuse that you may need it in the future. Unless it is a seasonal item, or the sentimental value greatly exceeds the ownership cost, keeping something in anticipation of the future, is probably premature optimization.

Many people keep stuff around purely on the thought that they may need it in the future. This is a terrible idea. Unless you are very certain that you will need it in the future, then you should get rid of it. The future is so variable, so unknown, things usually don't work out as planned, and you don't need stuff getting in the way. Sure you will probably throw away something that you will use in the future, but the cost of keeping it in storage, and maintaining it amongst all of the other things that you might need, is actually quite great. And your chances of actually remembering all of the stuff that you put in storage, is not very good.

Be honest with yourself, what things really make your life better, and what things are just clutter?