Monday, May 21, 2012

Prized Possessions or Junk?

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for my main blog, Writer Extroidinaire, but I felt like it could be of some help to people having a hard time letting things go in their quest for Zero Waste.

I used to be a pack-rat, and in a horrible way. I would save programs that had my name on them, not because the event was special, but just because the piece of paper had my name on it. When I moved out on my own for real (to an apartment, not just a college dorm), I decided that I wanted to have all my stuff in my house with me. Then I realized how much stuff I had, and spent a month getting rid of a lot of it.

This first round of simplifying and decluttering was easy; there were tons of books I didn't particularly like, clothes I didn't wear or attach sentimental value to, and slips of paper with my name on them that I could get rid of with ease. I got rid of a third of my stuff with no guilt at all, and moved the rest over to my tiny apartment.

Over the next few years I was able to slowly go through a box at a time and downsize my collections. I religiously read to keep myself motivated and inspired. Occasionally if I had fond memories of something but didn't need it in physical form I would take a picture of it. My Scottie dog sweater from second grade makes me smile, but I get just as much happiness from looking at a picture of it as I do from holding it, so I donated the sweater and keep the picture, which takes up no space at all on my hard drive. This picture taking habit served as a useful and justified crutch, and I was steadily making my way towards a streamlined household that only contained things I loved, used, and could store and care for in a respectful manner.

Then I got evicted. It happened with little warning, when I had no safety net, and for reasons that had very little to do with my qualities as a tenant. My apartment was the first real home I had made for myself, and losing it hurt. A lot. Worse, compounding my problem of having no money, no place to live, and very little time to solve both of these problems, was the fact that I still had boxes of stuff left to evaluate.

With everything happening at once I got rid of stuff. A lot of stuff. I opened all the boxes before I donated them, but that was about it. I panicked, and made a bad situation worse by getting rid of stuff that I used and loved. Moving from a hundred and fifty square feet of apartment to fifty square feet of storage unit and whatever could fit in my car made me freak out and get rid of clothes, books, and project materials that I wasn't really ready to part with.

In an effort to clear out my life's problems, I made a list of everything I needed to live. A tiny wardrobe, a few cooking necessities, and the barest bones of hobby material. Artwork, fun-but-impractical clothing, childhood treasures; none of these things made the list, and so a lot of them got donated. My bright orange coat that made me look like a pumpkin when I wore it was donated, despite the fact that I loved wearing it, and was even designing a leaf hat to enhance the pumpkin look. A juicer that I didn't use on a daily basis was listed on freecycle, even though I was steadily increasing my juicing efforts. A typing table that was tiny but faithfully useful was given away, even though it left me with no place to write.

After the purge, when I had finally settled with my fiance at his parents' house, I started to feel guilty and remorseful. Yes, I got rid of some stuff that I would have gotten rid of anyway, and the fact that I managed to take time to donate or recycle everything brought me some comfort, but the fact of the matter was I'd gotten rid of too much too fast. My anxiety and depression turn this into a worse problem than it actually is, but the situation of losing things that were useful and loved remains.

And here is where this post falls apart, because here is where I am right now. I have a lot less stuff, but now the worry of not having it is replacing the worry of having it. I'm slowly beginning to realize that it was never about the stuff in the first place. I'm worrying because I still really don't have a home, years of work to improve my life was blown to hell in less than a month, and things that enhanced and improved my life are now gone. I can (and do) replace some of the best things on e-bay (let's just say I'm knitting myself a green leaf hat for winter), and the rest I'm starting to realize wasn't that important to begin with. Sure, my Chi hair straightener will cost a lot to replace, but the likely-hood that I'll ever need to do that is small, since I wear my hair short now. And in the case of sentimental objects, I try to remember that releasing them back into the universe to give others joy is a lot better than losing them in a natural disaster, or even than letting them molder away quietly in a box sealed for safekeeping.

If I could do it all over again, I'd definitely do things differently, but I'm living well now with what I have, I'm doing well replacing gnawing guilt with simple regret, and I'm learning to love myself regardless of what I own or what bad decisions I've made. Plus, I'll always have pictures of my favorite dinosaur friends.

Step Eight: Write Things Down

I love lists, calendars, and notebooks. My fiance might accuse me of being obsessed with them, but I like to think that I am just well-organized. I consider my network of paper and computer files a way to outsource basic tasks so I can free up brain-power to work on more difficult problems (like how to get Ghirardelli to package their delicious chocolate squares in biodegradable cellophane, rather than the plastic-based packaging they use now. I'm not ready to give up my daily chocolate square). By writing things down, I don't have to devote mental energy to remembering them, I simply make checking my notes a regular part of my day.

If writing isn't your thing you can always draw stuff.
This is all well and good from an organizational and productivity standpoint, but it also significantly helps me in my zero-waste lifestyle. By keeping an updated calendar it's easier for me to take the bus or walk places, rather than have to drive there in a rush when I realize I'm half an hour late. Knowing what I'm going to do on any given day allows me to prepare with the necessary tote bags, take-out containers, or biodegradable poop bags (for the dogs, fyi). Keeping track of errands I need to run lets me do them all at once and save on gas, rather than one at a time. Most importantly, writing things down helps me keep undesired junk and garbage out of my house; I have a list of what items I need to get, gifts I know people will like, and business websites to check out. That eliminates unnecessary purchases, saves me time in stores, and lets me refuse flyers and freebies while maintaining confidence that I'll remember to follow up on products or services I like.

Of course, living in the marvelous time that we do, one needn't carry any paper at all; most of this information can be contained on a single smartphone kept in a pocket. For those of us on the poorer end of the spectrum, or for those who maintain their suspicions about Skynet, a single notebook makes an affordable, handy alternative. I used to carry over half a dozen notebooks everywhere with me to keep track of my finances, ideas, to-do lists, calendar, knitting patterns, journaling, and school-work. But recently, with the addition of a kindle and completion of school I've been able to slim my notebooks down to one Moleskine, which I make tabbed sections in for finances, ideas, and calendar items. I journal through the rest of the book, keep fleeting, impermanent notes on post-its that I've stuck inside the cover, and keep track of my to-do lists on separate index cards which are held in the back pocket. This sounds complicated, but in practice it's become quite easy and works well for me, as I now need to carry only one notebook, leaving more room in my bag for other things, and helping to correct my spinal oddities.
It's very satisfying to see stuff get done.

Though I'm convinced my system is the best, I acknowledge that this likely isn't the case. Many people feel more comfortable carrying a planner, maintaining their finances online, using a single sheet of paper for to-do lists, or keeping reminders of things on the  front of their refrigerator. Some people find lists distracting and would rather just do things as they come up. Many families find that a large communal calendar with a section for notes keeps everyone coordinated.

No matter what system you find works best for you, I'd definitely recommend at least writing down appointments you have to keep, and things you need to do. Think of your brain's frontal cortex as a small table; you can do infinite activities on this table, but your innovation and flexibility decrease dramatically when clutter fills up the table. If you're trying to remember to call your Aunt Minnie while you're working on a report for your boss, it's like having a picture of your aunt and a large telephone on the table while you're using a typewriter, reading through previous reports, looking at a picture of your possibly angry boss, and going through stacks of charts, graphs, and other information you need to write the report in the first place.

As much as we like to think we can multitask, we really can only do one thing well at a time (possibly two, if one is a physical activity and the other is mental, but that's about the limit). By making a note outside of your brain to call Aunt Minnie, you free space on your tabletop to focus on what you're doing, which also allows you do it well.  Unfortunately, mental notes don't help in this situation, because it's like putting the telephone and picture of your aunt on your lap--sure, it's not in your real work-space, but it's still cluttering up your unconscious mind and hindering your ability to work at your best.
Nothing says you can't be colorful.

By writing down appointments to keep and tasks to do, you'll better be able to evaluate your needs and plan your day. Additionally, it's easier to see the nonphysical waste in your life when you write it down. I didn't enjoy watering my lawn, so I got rid of the lawn, freeing up my time for more enjoyable pursuits, like tending to the food garden I used the space for instead. Likewise, I found that keeping up with my family is important to me, and so I gave up some television time in order to write everybody once a month. Lastly, my time isn't eaten up with the nagging feeling that I've forgotten something at the grocery store or missed a doctor's appointment. When I outsource things to my notebook, I know where to look to make sure everything gets done, instead of wondering about it and dawdling while I try to think.

Arguably, using paper to write things down may be wasteful, but most types of paper are recyclable, and the rest is usually biodegradable (I compost my post-it notes), and I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives. By writing things down I free up precious space in my brain, have a centralized location to check what I need to do for the day, and allow myself  to stay on track by jotting notes about to-do items that float through my head and then return to the primary task. I promise you, establishing the habit of writing things down, in whatever form you choose, will help you significantly to have a happy, remarkable, waste-free life.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.