Managing Our Stuff

Over the years, I have noticed that I seem to use two rules to help me manage my physical possessions. By “manage” I mean 1) keep track of; and 2) utilize in a timely fashion so they wear out or get used up rather than rot/spoil, get lost, etc.

Confession: I am easily overwhelmed by physical stuff. I can be a bit absent-minded and misplace things, or forget I even have them.

The two rules that seem to help me manage my stuff are 1) Don’t have too much stuff; and 2) Conduct visual inventories of my stuff on an ongoing basis.

Of course, the definition of “too much stuff” varies from one person to the next. One person’s “excessive” is another person’s “not-enough,” is yet another person’s “just right.”

The definition varies by category too. I can manage fairly extensive collections of art and craft supplies without getting overwhelmed. But do not give me ONE SINGLE electrical cord, or electric/electronic device, beyond the few devices I use on a daily basis. Cords in particular make me crazy. Today at a housecleaning job, I encountered the “basket of snakes” that is common in so many North American households, even households of modest means. Seeing that basket of tangled cords, and all of them plugged into a power-strip, and almost impossible to even lift the basket to dust the TV cabinet, and impossible to find a way to plug anything else (like, say, a vacuum cleaner) into the power strip because all the plugs are occupied and all the cords are braided together into incestuous immobility, reminded me of one reason why I don’t want a TV and all its associated paraphernalia. In that moment, I realized that I would even rather do without electricity entirely than have a vicious cord-snarl in my home!

To each his or her own. The point is to decide what and how much stuff you can manage, and try not to burden yourself with anything beyond that.

Now, since I tend to be a bit forgetful and absent-minded, I will STILL forget about stuff even if I have only very little stuff to keep track of. This is where conducting visual inventory comes in. I literally have to remind myself of what stuff I have. It’s just a quick visual task, and can be done one room or even just one drawer at a time, when I have a spare moment. The other day I overviewed my spare box of needles and thread. Not spool by spool or anything like that. More like just reminding myself of the box’s contents: pins, needles, scissors, thread, tape measure.

I’ll do a drawer or cabinet the same way. “Cool, got plenty of jars with lids here; no need to collect any more.” Or, “Oh yeah, I already have a backup bottle of dish liquid.” Or, “Oops, running low on dental floss!” Or, “These little bottles of acrylic paint are in danger of drying up before I use them up — time to plan an art project before that happens!” (And in the meantime add a drop or two of water to each bottle to keep them from drying out.)

I find that I need both of my “rules” working together. If I neglect the ongoing “visual survey,” I find I quickly lose track of my stuff. And this would probably be true even if I had much less stuff than I do now.

And conversely, I have to keep a strict limit on the amount of stuff I let into my life. If I had any more stuff than I have at the moment, the volume would be too unwieldy for me to be able to perform that ongoing “visual survey” that helps me keep a handle on things.

Do you ever feel bogged down in stuff? Do you have techniques and strategies that help you manage your stuff?

Nothing keeps forever. I feel like, if I were an object such as a tube of paint, a tool, or an article of clothing, I would rather meet my end by being used up/worn out than by rotting, spoiling, rusting, or being lost and forgotten!

Further Exploration:

• On mental hoarding: For me (and maybe for some of you), a mind full of ideas, hoarded rather than shared, feels like that dreadful power-strip of tangled cords. Or a drain clogged with solidified grease. Or one of those giant handbags from the 1980s, stuffed with crumpled receipts. Regarding mental hoarding, I read some great advice today. This is from the email newsletter of Jeff Goins, writer: “Annie Dillard has this quote about writing, that we should write it all—’spend it all’—every time, no matter what, holding nothing back. Because if you don’t do that, if you hoard your work for later, she says you will return to the safe where you kept it and all you will find is ash. It’s a startling reminder that life is short and we should always show up to do our best work every day.” This hits uncomfortably close to home for me. I feel called to share from the deepest depths of my brain and soul, but all too often still I feel myself holding back, holding something in reserve. (But, stand by, because I do have some fresh tricks up my sleeve to help those thoughts attain escape velocity from my head and get out into the world to do some good, before they are lost or forgotten!) By the way, this issue of Jeff’s newsletter is titled, “Why you should teach everything you know.”