Unclutter Your Mind: The Power Of Getting Rid Of Things

Author

Neil Kane, Contributor

September 26, 2014

As a kid I was in love with old movies, old books, comics, toys—anything nostalgic. As an adult I had a vintage loft apartment in Chicago that was filled with my collection of autographs of movie comedians, a working Victrola, two working Philco radios, a working crank telephone and a working candlestick phone just like Sam Spade might have used. My apartment looked like a high class junk shop. It’s one thing to play Frank Sinatra tunes as a prelude to romance, but playing a 78 rpm disc of “Someone To Watch Over Me” by ‘Ol Blue Eyes on a hand cranked phonograph slayed them every time.

Then I got married, had kids and eventually had to move from the great bachelor pad to a split level in Champaign, Illinois where I worked as Entrepreneur in Residence for the University of Illinois. While packing I found books, records, memorabilia and old toys that had been packed in boxes years before and had never been unpacked in the eight years I had the loft.

Four years later we moved from Champaign to a good sized home in suburban Chicago. This time I had a chance to do some purging before the move. I donated books, sold a few things on eBay, sold all of my record albums at used record stores and did everything I could think of to lighten my load. The thought of moving packed boxes yet again made me cringe, but my DNA makes it impossible for me to throw anything away that might have some value to someone. I have less trouble donating or giving away, but I can’t throw anything away. Shedding stuff responsibly takes time.

Despite making a nice dent by the partial purge, what remained was moved with the rest of our belongings to the new house. A few years later, when I left the company I founded and had excess time on my hands, I glanced around and for the first time in decades took a hard look at all my stuff. Stuff that occupied floor space, shelf space and mental space. Then, for reasons that I still don’t understand, I completely lost interest in all of it.

Instead of being a collector (some might say a hoarder), my consciousness flipped a bit and I came to be bothered by the weighty feeling of being tied down and anchored by all the stuff. So I started a massive elimination campaign. null

Old bank records, financial statements, insurance records—anything that I clearly didn’t need was thrown out. I went through household receipts for things we still owned, tax returns, mortgage papers, medical records, school records—and scanned everything on a sheet feed scanner (the metaphorical laxative in this story). By the time I was done I had eliminated over 12,000 pages of crap (I know this because there’s a counter on the scanner).

By scanning things I am not discarding them. I’m just getting rid of their mass. Converting atoms into bits. They are still available to me as digital files, and are much easier to find. I haven’t lost interest in the historical records—I just no longer see the need to have the physical objects.

Slowly but surely, I could see the evidence of movement as the excess space in my basement grew progressively larger and the boxes of crap shrank in number.

Then there was the memorabilia to deal with. I had a decent collection of old Life Magazines, vintage MAD Magazines, historical newspapers and over a hundred Playboys from the time when Playboy was great. I tried selling them and didn’t get nearly enough to justify the effort which was massively time consuming and foolhardy in hindsight, but I’m incapable of throwing anything away that might have historical interest even if there’s not much monetary value. Oh I wish had I my 1960s era baseball card collection which I threw away when I was a kid…

There were pieces of artwork and furniture that went by way of eBay, Craig’s List, antique stores, garage sales, Bookoo and, as a last resort, Goodwill.

Around this time I heard of a book called The Hundred Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno. The premise is as simple as it sounds—we all have too much stuff, and we should simplify our lives and get down to owning just 100 things. I went to a book reading with the author, and subsequently read the book, but was somewhat disappointed in its thin-ness. It really didn’t say much except “we can all live with less stuff”. Bruno’s journey is mostly about consumerism and environmentalism. My journey is about the spirituality and freedom that comes from lightening your load and simplifying your life without having to discard heirlooms and family memorabilia. By scanning things I’m not just throwing them away, I’m also making them infinitely easier to find and more accessible than ever before.

When I was a kid if you wanted to see part of the collection of the Library of Congress, you had to go to Washington, DC. Right now I’m able to pull most of it up on my screen. The same is now true of my family’s history. How many people do you know who can put their fingers on their high school report cards at a moment’s notice?

Then I had to tackle the photographs. I had 70 years’ worth of photos to go through. Photographs that were in storage in my basement could never be shared easily, were not archived and were susceptible to easily getting destroyed. Like books on shelves or bikes in the garage, photos in boxes don’t do anyone any good.

My family owned a retail camera store for about 50 years. My father put himself through college as a photographer, and when I was a kid, we had cameras, film, darkroom equipment and anything related to photography the way optician’s kids always have good eyeglasses. We had WAY more photographs than most families.

I can’t begin to explain how much time it has taken to go through thousands of unorganized photographs. They have to be sorted, scanned and then each one has to be date stamped and identified with whatever information exists about the photo. Some of the old ones have notes on the back, and my parents have provided additional annotations, and that information needs to be captured, right? I use Adobe Photoshop Elements which has a decent organizer that allows you to tag photos, add time and date stamps, captions, identify who is in them, make collections out of photos, and so forth. Despite the agony, when done I’ll easily be able to summon all of the photos of my grandparents before they were married, or photos of me before the age of 5 or photos of my semester of graduate school in Australia.

My father is not a Luddite but he doesn’t get cloud computing. He’s still an avid photographer and the family documentarian, but he is fond of emailing huge images to dozens of people, or, and he thinks he’s doing us a favor, mailing custom CDs of images. With my method I can throw everything up on the cloud and everyone in the family, who are scattered all over the country, can easily see them, comment on them and download them if they wish. No email, no mailing of CDs.

The process becomes exponentially more challenging with movies. There too, I have boxes of old 16mm and 8mm home movies…some going back to the early 1940s. Getting them digitized is no big deal—there are plenty of services that do that. But organizing the clips, annotating them, cutting out the useless stuff and posting it on YouTube is massively time consuming. But once done, they’re there for all to see, preserved forever (I think…) and new generations can easily see and access them. I recently found movies of my parents’ wedding from 1961 (that I had never seen) and movies of my grandparents with their newborn kids. For the last 20 years these were in boxes as I moved from apartment to loft to house to house…not seen by anyone. If I were to die unexpectedly, they would be lost forever because I can’t imagine anyone in my family having the endurance to sort this stuff out.

I don’t know where my compulsion comes from, but I think it would be a tragedy if these family treasures got lost, destroyed or misplaced forever. Despite a huge investment of time, now they’re out in the light of day (or at least I’m making progress in that direction). Despite the Herculean task, it is a task with a finite end.

Through this journey I’ve gotten rid of hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of crap in my basement. Stuff that I spent decades acquiring was gone in a few weeks. But rather than being sad about their departure, I feel great because my load is lighter and my life is simpler. The side benefits are numerous: whenever I move next there will be less stuff to pack and schlep, important information is preserved forever and my todo list is getting shorter.

I’m not sure I need to go all the way to having just 100 things, but I now feel that my house is too big despite the remaining boxes and boxes of junk in the basement—kids toys, clothes, old school work and so forth that still need to be scanned and purged. The thing about being married is that your pre-marital crap cuddles up to your spouse’s pre-marital crap in the basement with the lights off when no one is watching, spawns and creates more crap. When kids come along, the process amplifies exponentially. My wife doesn’t share my sense of need for order, nor does she have the time to be as obsessive about organization as I am, so most of the stuff that’s been purged has been my stuff instead of hers or the kids.

When we moved into our current home, I wanted a big house. Now I think it’s too big. A comfortable bed, a nice bath tub and good Internet access…what more do we really need to live like princes and princesses? The key, really, is the Internet access. Because through that, all of my history is accessible and all of the memories are preserved yet it doesn’t take up space any longer.

But back to the spirituality thing. For me this wasn’t just a “clean out the basement” exercise. It was a way of reliving my life since most of it was recorded or documented in some fashion—images, movies, report cards, news clippings, letters from friends—all tightly locked away in boxes in my basement sealed tight years ago. There’s something cleansing and purifying about having it out in the open, available, accessible and preserved. null

Neil Kane (@neildkane) is the president of Illinois Partners which helps companies, universities and investors with innovation strategies and technology commercialization. 

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