What do I own and why?

May 2013

in Clarity, Questions

This post is part of a series on the idea of clarity: what it is, why I want it, and how I’m developing it.

“Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants.” –Epictetus

How many people could tell you the exact number of things they own? Probably none. A best-guess answer is likely to be something vague like “too many things” or “not enough things.”

As of writing this I own exactly 187 things, so now you know at least one person with a specific answer.

Where did that number come from? I made a list of all my tangible possessions, and strive to:

  1. Keep the list as short as possible—my current target is 99 tangibles.
  2. Make sure ever item “counts”—that it’s high-quality, long-lasting, useful, and effective—basically, valuable.
  3. Keep it up to date.

It wasn’t always this way, but now I like owning as few things as necessary and try to have a good reason for everything I own. I get immense satisfaction from doing this. More than I would have guessed.

Wait, Why Keep a List and Why Keep it Small?

For starters, I like knowing what I own. I enjoy that general sense of awareness of my possessions. But there’s more to it than that:

  • I want a general awareness of all my tangible possessions.
  • I want to build awareness of the resources I have at my disposal.
  • Less possessions generally means less maintenance costs.
  • I enjoy being as “light” and mobile as possible (right now I could move to the other side of the world with 24h notice if I had to).
  • Keeping the list small forces me to eliminate the unimportant and be smart about what I buy.
  • The more I own the harder it is to stay organized and the harder it is to find things.
  • The less I own, the less that can be stolen (this is mostly a joke).
  • Keeping track of possessions can be a source of anxiety or stress; less things will hopefully reduce this.
  • Less things = less mental clutter.
  • I want to build a better appreciation of the things I do have.
  • Have more money to spend on experiences rather than things.

Hence my list.

What to Do

If you’re interested in doing something similar, here’s how I go about it:

1. Set the target.

For starters, decide how much stuff you want to own. How “light” do you want to be? What do you want your “rules” to be? (E.g., I don’t count my books in my total.) Set a target number of possessions (mine is 99).

2. Define priorities.

How much do you care about mobility? For me, it’s a lot. Can you have too little? Too much? Certainly. Are you going focus on reducing clothing, electronics, or random possessions? How important is having high-quality possessions that last longer and work better, versus cheaper items?

3. Process.

Once in a while (I aim for once a year) consciously go through all your possessions and eliminate what you don’t want or need. Systematically go through everything you own and ask: Why do I have this? What is it for? Is it redundant? Can I buy one one better item to replace these ten crummier items? Could someone else make better use of this?

4. Purge.

For every item, there are only three options: (1) keep it, (2) give it to someone else (sell or donate), and (3) trash it.

5. Optimize.

Chances are, there’s huge room for improving the value of what you own.

Throw out all your crummy socks and buy a dozen of the same pair so you never have to worry about matching the correct socks together. Buy an optimal wardrobe that covers all situations and seasons without buying 20 black shirts. Throw out all your crummy pens and buy a few good ones you like to use. Get rid of that old computer equipment you haven’t used in year and never will use.

Do this in small steps if necessary, such as one room or area at a time. In fact, if this all sounds like too much work, maybe try reducing/improving the tangibles in a single area of your life, e.g. your office, and see if you like it.

More Resources

Some other lists and resources that partly inspired this post:

Final words of wisdom:

“Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.” —Austin Powers