Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Disembedding Your Identity from Your Stuff

by Andre · 8 Comments

Roger DodgerFrom the film Roger Dodger:

Nick: Like, what do you do all day?
Roger: What do I do all day? I sit here and think of ways to make people feel bad.
Nick: I thought you wrote commercials.
Roger: I do. But you can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad.
Nick: Why not?
Roger: Because it’s a substitution game. You have to remind them that there’s something missing from their lives. Everyone’s missing something, right?
Nick: Well, yeah, I guess.
Roger: Trust me. And when they’re feeling sufficiently incomplete, you can convince them that your product is the only thing that can fill that void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they run out and buy a stupid pair of cargo pants.

Life beyond stuff

Decluttering is fundamentally an emotional process. It reopens the void filled through relentless acquisition by reversing the habit. From the outside looking in, purging seems like an extension of interior decorating, but it’s really a project of reevaluating each thing in our lives and deciding whether it’s a want or a need, and whether that need is current or obsolete.

Things can be physical, like the boat someone takes out once a month to avoid feeling guilty about using it less after spending thousands of dollars on it. They can be schedule obligations, like weekly status meetings requiring PowerPoint masturbations. Or they might take the form of habits, like checking email for lack of anything better to do. These are all emotional investments, and once they seem to become permanent fixtures, the rest of life begins to ossify.

The two thresholds of stuff: real and representative

Stuff is often used to express a person’s identity: state of the art gadgets, overpopulated to do lists, bookshelves filled with impressive titles. But stuff can also become “points of entry.” Points of entry are things that represent some aspect of our identity: an interest, aspiration or value. Once the “what” that’s being represented is identified, it becomes easier to get rid of the representations.

A book collection might represent a passion for knowledge. If a passion for knowledge is important, that value doesn’t go away by getting rid of the symbolic version. Paring down the collection to the absolute minimum might even release a preoccupation on past knowledge, making it easier to acquire knowledge through newer books, or through alternative ways that haven’t been considered — like, heaven forbid, asking people questions.

An album of family photos containing every snapshot ever taken might represent the memory of being a family, but some photos are more memorable than others. An album largely filled with unmemorable pictures renders the collection as a whole unmemorable. By keeping the few pictures that represent highlights and discarding the rest, the album becomes more memorable and meaningful. “More” is measured in value rather than volume.

When less is more

Getting unstuffed and unstuck requires a paradigm shift. We trade tangible items that reinforce our stability for intangible experiences that facilitate transition. It requires consciously focusing on what we gain by removing impediments to change, not on what we theoretically lose.

  • What would you be doing if you didn’t automatically turn on the television the moment you walked in the living room?
  • How would your sense of time famine change if you eliminated most (or all) of your RSS feeds without replacing them?
  • Is a household full of high-maintenance, time consuming items really abundance?

Decluttering certainly involves creating space and clearing obstructions, but at a deeper level it’s about letting go of attachments to objects, events and habits that anchor us to a less mature past. The goal isn’t wholesale renunciation of the material world. If a gadget solves a real problem efficiently, or a painting in the living room adds real beauty, they can enhance our lives without becoming identity traps. Amenities and luxuries aren’t necessarily clutter. We need fat, but not obesity.

Look at the life you want to create for yourself, the lifestyle you want to pursue or impact you would like to have on the world, and see if you can name an overall theme to it. Go through your stuff item by item and ask if it supports this theme. If the answer is yes, keep it; otherwise get rid of it. Filter out the things that no longer add value to life.

(Photo credit: Peter Figetakis)

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  • VeredNo Gravatar // Aug 14, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    I wish I had something intelligent to add but I don’t.

    I love this post so much that I stumbled it.

  • JoanneNo Gravatar // Aug 15, 2008 at 1:37 am

    Great post. I like the deeper level viewpoint about the benefits and importance of declutterring

  • Jarrod - Warrior DevelopmentNo Gravatar // Aug 15, 2008 at 4:45 am

    I like the conversation, it is so true of how some people think and most act.

  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Aug 15, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Decluttering is an ongoing battle in my home. We always have a box of stuff sitting, waiting to be donated. It’s very important to keep a one in/one out rule, I find, when acquiring new things.


  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 16, 2008 at 2:13 am

    @Vered: Thanks for the stumble. Reciprocated, despite having no history of swimsuit malfunctions

    @Joanne: I think it’s important for us to focus on the internal dimensions of decluttering. Too much emphasis is placed on efficiency and aesthetics.

    @Jarrod: That dialog has stuck in my mind for years. I’m certainly not an exception to succumbing to retail therapy, but I’m recovering.

  • Why I Went Back to a Digital Organizer // Sep 26, 2008 at 8:26 am

    [...] especially since I’ve eliminated so much of the emotional backlog I was keeping (see Disembedding Your Identity from Your Stuff). The more focused I’ve become on what I want, the less need I feel to block out what I [...]

  • Fast Track Decluttering by Separating Value and Relevance // Oct 7, 2008 at 11:58 am

    [...] to change are the artifacts that we accumulated in pursuit of our original theme. We begin to identify with the “stuff” surrounding our [...]

  • dcNo Gravatar // Oct 28, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Now, once you decide to part with something, what do you do with it, especially if it had meaning to you but will have no revelence to someone else, What if it has value but no one wants it, it has life, it could grow into further tangents, it can become a monster, it needs to be kept at bay, it seems value can be elusive, should you cease the fire from spreading and let others benifit, dumping the trash in the can or, do you set yourself up on ebay minus fees and wait for the buyer of mistaken goods?