How To Unplug From Stuff

by Tammy Strobel on April 2, 2010

“I believe that examining the hidden impacts of all the Stuff in our lives is a way to unplug, which is the first step toward changing things.” ~Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff

I tend to be a little obsessive about projects, so when I read Collin’s post about taking photos of his stuff I decided to copy him. I love photography, so this little project was actually a good exercise for me.

Going through my stuff again helped me reevaluate what I need in my life. As a result, I was able to donate a number of items that were cluttering up my closet and bookshelf. I also reconsidered why I’m participating in the 100 Thing Challenge and its importance.

The more I mull it over, the more I think the 100 Thing Challenge is less about counting up stuff (and taking photos) than it is about asking ourselves larger questions like:

  • Where was my stuff made?
  • How was my stuff processed and where does it all go when I’m done with it?
  • Why do I shop so much?
  • Do material things really make me happy?
  • If I have less stuff to worry about, will I have more time to give back to my community?

Being aware of how stuff affects our physical and emotional health is empowering. More importantly, making small changes in our own lives leads to a greater awareness of the connection between environmental, economic and social justice issues. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you unplug from your stuff.

1. Start sorting through your stuff. Slowly.

Go through your home room by room and create piles of stuff you want to keep and stuff you want to donate. This process takes time. Undertaking a gradual transition will help alleviate emotional guilt associated with trashing possessions and promotes a routine of minimizing that is more likely to outlast quick lifestyle fixes.

I get a lot of emails that ask for a magic solution to the problem of clutter. There is no magic solution. If you have a house full of stuff, there is no weekend solution for responsible decluttering.

And I’m serious, be responsible. Don’t throw your stuff away! Give it away or repurpose items so you don’t need to buy something new. We don’t need more stuff in the landfills, toxins seeping into our water supply or more garbage shipped to developing countries.

2. Avoid lifestyle creep.

Lifestyle creep is when we try to keep up with the mythical Joneses and end up unhappy and in debt. Participating in the 100 Thing Challenge is a great way to avoid this phenomenon. For instance, I take care of what I have instead of constantly buying the latest clothes or shoes. It’s helped me become more mindful of my consumption choices.

3. Start saving instead of shopping.

If you take on the 100 Thing Challenge, I guarantee you’ll save a lot of cash. One of the main reasons I’m participating in this challenge is not only to unclutter my life, but also to save money. I’m now much more thoughtful about my purchases. I know what I already have and what I may or may not “need.” The end result has been an increase in savings and that makes me happy.

4. Get your counting groove on.

Consider participating in this challenge. If you think the task is too difficult and you are not sure where to start, then begin by reading The Story of Stuff, The Art of Being Minimalist and The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life. These books will help you unplug from your stuff and consider its hidden costs.

***

Spread the love. If this post helped you, please retweet it and share the content with your tribe.

1 Charley Forness April 2, 2010

Excellent article, Tammy, thanks for the inspiration. I am also doing the 100 thing challenge, but I had not previously counted books. Yesterday I said goodbye to most of them but i still have 27 left.

What I’ve found with the 100 Thing Challenge is that my clothing wears out faster because I have fewer choices and thus wear it more often. So, Solid Color Dress shirts that I wear to work are now needing to be replaced. I used to buy whatever I could find on sale at the department stores but now I’m trying to balance more sustainable fibers, i.e. Hemp and Organic cottons with the fact that my shirt must now travel from another country and be mailed to my doorstep. Buffalo, NY does not have (m)any boutiques that deal in that sort of thing. We have one Hemp clothing store that I know of and it imports everything from China and thus travels a long way to my hands.

I guess I’m pretty ignorant as to how stuff travels to where it gets to me and I’d be interested in seeing a detailed review of the Story of Stuff, if you were inclined to write one.

Thanks for the inspiration and I’m only counting 54 items at the top. Is there more on Flickr? or are you down to 54 items?

2 Tammy April 2, 2010

@Charley – I haven’t worn out many of my clothes (well yet). However, I’m really lucky because Portland has a crazy amount of thrift shops. So I shouldn’t have a problem finding nice stuff. Also, when I do buy new clothing, I try and purchase high quality items (similar to what you’ve mentioned). Have you found any shops online that suit your needs?

Downsizing my library was hard. But I’m glad I did. I gave a majority of my books to the Davis and Sacramento libraries. And as a bonus, we didn’t have so much to move. :)

I have 65 items right now. Some of the photos have more than one item in the shot. Like my suit, pajamas, etc. :)

And yes, I’m planning on writing a review of The Story of Stuff. I’m still thinking about a lot of the material in the book. It was really dense and am trying to figure out how to distill her points. :)

Thanks for reading the blog!

3 Jennifer Tuma-Young November 26, 2010

Tammy- THANK YOU for this post! I started pairing down on ‘stuff’ a few years ago, but as our kids get older more ‘stuff’ starts to creep in. I just went into our basement and thought, “how did all of this ‘stuff’ come back?”

I gave away most of my clothing and shoes, and I agree that less items that are higher quality works wonders. I’ve definitely mastered the art of mix and match :)

As for books, what I do is after I read one and it’s served its purpose, I give it to a friend and write a little message about what the book means to me or why I wanted to pass it along to him/her, and then encourage the receiver to read, and pass along with their own message to someone else.

Now, what to do with all of the toys?! We donate toys often, but it seems so many keep coming in…

I LOVE your blog and I am so thankful I found it!

Warmly,
Jennifer

4 Loganenator April 2, 2010

Wheres the pic of the camera? ;)

5 Dave April 2, 2010

This has become kind of a seasonal ritual for us, if not more often sometimes. Trips to Powell’s, Goodwill, or resale shops to get rid of stuff are pretty common. We also try to buy used things as much as possible – from clothing to cookware to bicycles – often they’re actually more well-made than modern equivalents, and then we don’t encourage new mass-production of items. We try to buy things that we will never get rid of, both because we will want to keep using them, and because they will last.

We find that material objects bring us happiness insomuch as they enable us to do what we love – cookware, bicycles, yarn and kneedles/hooks are all things that bring us happiness by enabling us to do certain things.

We’ve also been trying to really limit the amount of things we have that use electricity, including lights. Often a manual gadget will work equally as well, and being able to do things by your own energy brings a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency, I find. Oil lamps and candles are cheap and give such a nice light, plus some warmth. And our electric bill is really small, which is nice :)

6 Tammy April 2, 2010

@Dave – Very cool! Thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to dinner in a few weeks! :) Happy Friday.

7 Andrew April 2, 2010

Wow. We’re definitely working on the same wavelength.

As a teacher, I’m always trying to answer the “why” behind things (as in, “why do we have to do this? is it valuable to my education…?”). I took up the 100 thing challenge a couple weeks ago, but have not yet pared down to 100. I’m getting there.

Anyway, I have been talking to lots of friends and family lately about the Challenge, and they all want to know why I am subjecting myself (their words) to this radical cleaning-out. (I answered this in a blog post–you can check out the “website” link if you’re interested)… but what it comes down to is that I don’t want to let junk rule my life, and I want to spend responsibly when I do need to buy something.

Your post really jumped out at me, though, because I was working with the same ideas last night in my writing at MZ–and though my personal slant comes at the issue through the garden instead of the front door (so to speak), I think the endgame is the same.

So thanks for the affirmation and all the good words. Keep up the great work!

8 Dave Thielen April 2, 2010

Great post, Tammy! This weekend will be the second in a row that I’m undertaking a massive decluttering effort at home. The extra motivation always helps!

9 Tammy April 2, 2010

@Dave – yay! I’m glad the post inspired you. Good luck decluttering this weekend.

10 Alice April 2, 2010

Love this post Tammy and I think I might have a go at photographing my stuff next time I get a chance. I have a LOT of stuff and one of my goals this year is to declutter and get rid of a lot of it. I’m not sure if I can get down to 100 things yet, but I am slowly getting rid of the unnecessary things I own. I have also found that since I have become interested in simplicity and decluttering, the idea of shopping just isn’t appealing to me anymore. I used to enjoy shopping as a hobby, whereas now I find it a burden.

I went through my wardrobe yesterday and was amazed at how many clothes I have when they are all sorted and put away properly. I have put aside a pile to donate and am aiming to live with what I have for the next season without buying anything new, (except a few necessities) as I can see now that I already have so much.

Love your blog
Alice

11 Tammy April 3, 2010

@Alice – thank you! I had a lot of fun photographing my stuff. It made me appreciate what I have even more.

Have you read The Happiness Project? It’s a great book. Your comment about your wardrobe made me think of some of the decluttering tips discussed in the book. If you have a chance, pick up a copy at your library.

Thanks for reading the blog!

12 Deb J April 2, 2010

Tammy, this is a great post. I haven’t started counting my stuff yet but I know that I have a lot less than I used to. My biggest amount of possessions is all of my scrapbooking stuff. If I didn’t have that I would have very little. I’ve spent time and prayer on scrapbooking and I’m gradually divesting myself of most of what I have. We are having a rummage sale here in our community the week after Easter with the money being divided between two things–a third of it will be used to hold events for the community and the rest will be given to the police and fire departments because they do so much for our community. I’m excited about this sale more this year because it is giving me a way to dump a lot of stuff for a good cause. If I lived alone there would be a lot more being given away. The thing I am so happy about though is that you post has reminded me of my goal–to live with as little as possible so that I am not weighed down by things. Thanks.

13 susanna eve April 3, 2010

I don’t imagine that I will ever have as few as 100 things but we are currently getting rid of A LOT of stuff, it is all going to other families (toys and kids books) or a couple of fund raising yard sales with the very dregs going to a shelter for women and children. I have been thinking that we have too many dishes but I have a large family (we have 5 kids, even if just 2 still live at home) and yesterday we had some of our family over for passover seder and we used every single bowl and utensil, some of them more than once.
I agree that the questions you put out for consideration are more important than the actual number of things I and my household own. We don’t buy very much at all and are trying to follow the rule that if something new (besides food and medication) come into the house, something else has to go.
I really enjoy reading your blog and what you write on twitter.

14 Tammy April 3, 2010

Thank you Susanna and Deb! :)

If you don’t get down to 100 Things that is totally okay. I think it’s great you are donating items you no longer need and questioning your own consumption patterns. More importantly, you’re able to donate to a good cause. Very cool. :)

15 Mars Dorian April 3, 2010

Getting rid of material stuff is essential – I like your small approach, but it’s useless to me. I*m more the extreme version – I used to play a lot with my playstation, and one day I had enough of the waste of time, and I just smashed it – baaam- along with the 20+ collection. It was liberating.

16 Ross Hill April 4, 2010

I just got back from 3 weeks carry-on travel and counted up a total of 48 things when I returned. 13 of those were schwag and things I picked up along the way as well as things I just didn’t use, bringing the theoretical number for my next trip to 35!

I have found travel a simple way to get started along the minimalist route – next up is the total thing count. 100 here I come!

17 Erin April 4, 2010

Awesome post, Tammy. I’ve concluded, after much soul searching, that I don’t want to get down to 100 things. Having said that, the exercise has helped me continue my family’s journey of decluttering and conscious acquisition. From big things (like a pool and a jacuzzi) to little things (like a pair of shoes) and everything in between, I’m getting rid of stuff that doesn’t enhance our lives. The guy at the Goodwill drop off (who has a cool motorized bike!) knows us by name and I’m not unfamiliar with dropping stuff off twice in one day (hey, when I decide it has to go, it has to go!). Cupboards aren’t full to bursting and some of our drawers are actually empty. My children have gotten used to my habit of carrying things around in a shopping cart only to put them back before I hit the check-out. They’re no longer embarrassed when I simply say, “I’ve changed my mind.” I think long and hard before I bring anything new into our home, or before I replace something that “died/broke”. The quality of our lives is increasing as the burden is decreasing…a fair trade, if I do say so myself. My goal? To raise children who will never have too much stuff and, instead, will have lives that they’ve created to fit themselves ideally.

18 Colin Wright April 5, 2010

Love. It. Thrilled that you found inspiration with what I’m doing, though I think you’ve made it your own here! Great advice here, and thanks for the shout :)

19 Little House April 5, 2010

What a great idea! I love the whole repurposing your items. I’ve fallen into the creeping lifestyle category and found that I just have too much stuff! Luckily, I’m not a huge shopper so it’s not clothing. Thanks again for this terrific idea.

20 Chandra April 5, 2010

Are you going to take it a step farther and photograph everything in your home?

I remember the Living With 72 Things article and seeing what other people have as their everyday-use items (like in your cupboard picture) is always fascinating to me. I guess its kinda like human studies or something, lol.

Like I’ve said on here before, books and movies are my weakness, so I know I won’t be getting down to only 100 items everyday. BUT, like you said, that isn’t the point; the point is making ourselves aware. Keep up the great progress and awesome posts.

P.S. I had to laugh at Logan asking about the camera photo! ^_^

21 Tammy April 6, 2010

@Chandra – LOL! Well maybe. :) I love taking photos, so taking snap shots of our household stuff might be my next project. Teeheee.

Logan’s comment about the camera made me giggle too! He is silly.

Hugs to you…

22 Sonicsuns April 5, 2010

Absolutely. Practically everyone (in wealthy countries, anyway) could do with less stuff.

23 Chloe Adeline April 7, 2010

I didn’t know you were living the 100TC…but wow…photographing all your stuff. I think that’s a fantastic idea! When I get closer to the 100 mark, I think I might do that.
] chloe [

24 ET April 11, 2010

Have you read Material World: A Global Family Portrait by P Menzel? Families from around the world display their possessions. It is really an eye opening book.

25 Tammy April 12, 2010

@ET – No I haven’t read that book. It sounds fantastic. I’ll check it out of the library. :) Thanks for the tip!

26 peter h April 14, 2010

a brilliant site! A quick question about the presentation of pictures in this nice design, where can i find it or instructions of how to do it?

sincerely peter in stockholm

27 SimplyMe April 17, 2010

This is a helpful, inspiring post. I just did another Goodwill donation run today. Just when I think I’ve gone through everything one last time, I find about 20 more items that can move on out of my house. For me, the most significant minimizing has been in my closet and wardrobe. I went from 23 purse (yes, you read that sickening number correctly) to four, and I plan to get down to two, I just haven’t decided which two won’t make the cut yet. I’ve reduced my wardrobe by more than half and am down to very, very basic jewelry. Life has never been better, more relaxing, or filled with more stress-free mornings! This is just the beginning for me…more to come as I discover ways to live simply in Fabulous Las Vegas.

28 Tammy April 19, 2010

@SimplyMe – I’m so impressed. I think it fantastic that you’re decluttering. It can be a hard and long process. So remember to be patient with yourself. :) Also, I’m super pumped that you’re donating you old things to Goodwill.

Thank you for reading! And keep me posted on you’re downsizing process.

29 Deb J April 18, 2010

Me again. The Rummage Sale I mentioned in my earlier comment was a great success. What is exciting is that my mother came home from helping with it and said she needed to get rid of more things because after seeing all of that stuff she realized she was hanging onto things she really didn’t need. Yahoo!! We live together and that makes me what to shout and dance.

30 Tammy April 19, 2010

Deb – yay! That is fantastic! I’m happy you’re mom was able to help you out. And it’s even better she wants to declutter. Rockin’!

31 Chiya June 9, 2010

Hi! Great blog post.
I think I’ll participate in the 100 things challenge… gradually because I’ve got a surprisingly large amount of stuff.
I don’t know if I’ll get it down to 100, but what I’ve done so far is really helping (I went shopping today and didn’t even want to impulsively buy anything…)

32 Wendy August 9, 2010

Tammy,

I have just started reading your blog today and must say I am inspired! I ran across it while reading the story the times did. kudo’s to you for making the news :)

I would like to offer up another form of getting rid of stuff while saving it from landfills. There is a site called freecycle.org that I use often.

It’s sole purpose is to keep things out of the landfills and keep them useful. Nothing is for sale, everything must be free for the taking. You have the option of posting “offers” of things you would like to give away or, you can request items that you need. Then, people can respond with simple emails to your posts. It is the takers obligation to pick up the items being given away and the offerer’s obligaition to choose who will recieve the items. Most people decide this by who responds first. You can select areas/regions that you want to subscribe to and recieve emails when someone in that area post and offer or wanted message.

I’ve seen people request anything from furniture to clothes to scrap fabrics and broken plates for craft projects. And, by signing up, you must agree to take and give items freely with out the intent to sell them to someone else.

33 Linda August 9, 2010

I’ve been scaling back for the last several years. In a family of 5 it can be quite the challenge especially when one family member (not me) is a “clothes-a-holic” to combat this I scale back mine and my daughters things and my sons do the same. That leaves only one persons clutter and he is finally getting it. For a time, I would grab a garbage bag and go around the house and not stop until the bag was full (only trash here), then I would grab a box and do the same for donations, again not stopping until the box was full. In one day I cleared out 5 trash bags and 3 boxes in one room, my husband didn’t notice for 3 weeks that “something was different”. I just smiled, he’s never missed any of it nor have I! :D

34 Laura Lee August 10, 2010

I am so happy that I found your blog today and the amazing links to other blogs and websites. I spent most of the past year mourning my ‘stuff’. I have just completed a very, very stressful divorce process which started with my ex locking me out of the house and I only ended up with a very small portion of my possessions. Today, I couldn’t be happier about shedding all of that ‘stuff’, but I have to be honest and admit that it was a very painful process to get to this point of happiness. I applaud everyone who has done this voluntarily and on their own because I know that I NEVER would have been able to do it if I hadn’t been forced to.

35 Lori August 10, 2010

This is fantastic! I’m delighted I stumbled upon your blog today!

36 Rob August 21, 2010

Interesting. I suspect this sort of minimalist goal is easier if you are not living alone, and don’t work at home, so you can export some of the “stuff” in your life to your living companion(s) or job.

For me, everything in the house is my “stuff”. Art, furniture, stereo, music, books, kitchen stuff, power tools, and all those things necessary to maintain a household. Not to mention the things I need to do my job as a computer geek. In other words the accumulation of 35 years of single living.

The spirit of the challenge is interesting, though.

Previous post:

Next post: