Freedom from Obligation is the Best Gift

“I've reached that peculiar but serene stage in life when all I want for Christmas is less.”

 – writer and critic Roger Ebert


Even the luckiest of us feel a bit of extra pressure around the end of the year. In a 2006 survey by the American Psychological Association over half of respondents reported they often or sometimes experience stress, irritability, and/or fatigue during the holidays, with the leading stressors being lack of time, lack of money, and commercialism or hype (in contrast to work and money which lead at other times of year). It’s not just Christmas. The whole season is enough to make anyone rebel against all that pressure, and I’m not the only one to invent holidays out of that stress: Buy Nothing Day and Festivus owe their origins to some of the same forces that launched Discardia. From the moment we lock the front door on Halloween night and start poking through the leftover trick-or-treat candy, we jump into a wild, obligation-filled bobsled run whisking us through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve until we’re dumped headfirst into the cold, slushy snow of the first bleak week of January.

We feel the whirlwind beginning as ads start to suggest “the perfect gift for the such and such on your list.” The list is assumed. Of course everyone has a List. Everyone must be buying. Then that post-turkey Friday comes and the frenzy in the stores begins. The crowds. The sensory overload of enforced commercial festivity. “Bring on the cheer, dammit!” seems to be the underlying message of the barrage of Christmas music, holiday movie promotions, and red and green advertising plastered on every surface. Sometimes it seems like you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a Santa – and as December barrels on, the temptation to do so grows.

Oh, and let's not forget the family pressures. Whether or not anyone in our own families applies it, pop culture is more than ready to step in with the traditional holiday guilt. “Welcome to December; here's your script; you know your parts; it's magic time! And as our sponsor would like to remind you, magic means presents! So shop 'til you drop! Charge it! After all, doesn't your family deserve a joyous holiday season?”

Friends and families gather together for whatever holidays they celebrate, events are planned with all their special rituals running the gamut from two separate kinds of cranberry sauce for differing tastes right on up to Midnight Mass and Auld Lang Syne in Times Square. People are pulled from their normal surroundings – or worse yet have to tidy them up for an onslaught of visitors – and are forced to do particular things at particular times, always a potential source of stress.

There is no time of year more likely to run people ragged than the holidays. It's not as though family tensions disappear; if anything, all the pressure to set the perfect holly jolly scene makes things worse. And I don't know about your financial state of affairs, but I don't come to the end of the year thinking “Wow! Look at all this extra money! I think I'll buy a bunch of stuff.” Like me, you've probably felt pressured to overspend at this time of year before and had a lean winter paying it back.

Well, I tell you, holiday gift buying is optional. It is possible to have a happy family gathering without breaking the bank. You can have a blessed season without shattering your peace of mind. You can make it the season of giving without it being the season of shopping.

You don't have to buy presents. Really. You just don't have to. Most people don't need more stuff and no one needs more debt. Indeed, in that same 2006 APA survey 47% of respondents cited the pressure of giving or getting gifts as something that causes them stress. Why put ourselves through this? Most of us in the first world have so much stuff that a pile of presents is no longer exciting, no longer novel. There are lots of alternatives to the holiday shopping madness, many other ways to remind people you care about them. Maybe something for the kids, but, again, you don't have to break the bank to spread that holiday cheer.

First and foremost, tell them you care. Write them a note, call them on the phone, bump into them in line in the grocery store, whatever, but just say “You know, I am so glad to have you in my life.” Maybe suggest you get together sometime, perhaps after the holidays when things aren't so busy, but even if you only let them know that you appreciate them, you can be giving something much greater than a hastily selected present.

When you do want to give a gift, there are many kinds that won't strain your credit or leave you frazzled:

-       Cooked or crafted things which you actually enjoy making
My friend, librarian Kristin Garrity, makes the most wonderful holiday cookies, but the best part is the conversation we have while I'm nibbling on those tasty treats from her kitchen.

-       Homemade gift certificates for future fun together
I have had tremendous fun making up little books of these certificates for someone special. Each one becomes a shared dream of a good time I want us to have together. The words, “A walk in the woods with the smell of damp earth and redwoods and the sound of the wind in the treetops” are already something special, made even better when you both make the time to make the dream real.

-       Mix CDs (of music or photos)
I've been introduced to lots of great music this way, by both family and friends. Okay, maybe I wind up spending some of that money I save on gifts buying the albums with a song I particularly liked, but now every time I hear that music I think of the person who first shared their fondness for it with me.

-       Donations to charities (monetary or, if you have more hours than cash, your time in honor of someone else)
My grandmother’s tradition was to make donations to Heifer Project, the sustainable agriculture charity, in our names. This meant we got all the amusement of receiving a goat, without the actual goat in the house part.

-       Memories
One year my family ‘unwrapped’ memories for each other. Everyone took turns at telling a favorite memory of each other person. Those stories reminded us of what we treasure about each other and it was a lovely way to spend time together.


I’m one of the lucky ones. My family is not by any stretch of the imagination a high pressure one. Phrases such as “Well, I need a little me-time, so I’m going to go read for a bit” or “I think I’ll take a nap” are often heard and accepted without causing tension. As family holidays go, mine are awfully relaxing. Still, when I was a kid Christmas was always a big deal for us. I grew up in a big house with high ceilings and we took every advantage of that to make the holidays something special. A towering tree, covered in exotic ornaments. Festive draperies in the house. Room for all the family to visit. And, of utmost interest to a little kid, lots of packages under that big tree. Plus stockings to open on Christmas morning for everyone, including the grownups. Not stingy ones either: great big stockings that could come up to your knee bulging with fascinating things. The days leading up to Christmas proper were very exciting. Christmas Eve one package each might be opened. Christmas morning everyone would gather – after digging into stockings upon waking – for the main opening of the presents, which was done one package at a time rather than en masse. There were, as I said, a great many presents. So many in fact, that in generous years (or ones where many small gifts were making up for few large ones), we would take a break in the process of opening them in order to have brunch and fortify ourselves. All this makes us sound fabulously wealthy; we’re not. We just liked Christmas. For all the pleasures, though, it left us exhausted and broke.

Add up all the stuff: all the decorations, stockings, tree stands, draperies, strings of lights, special plates for special meals, and we haven’t even come to the presents themselves yet. At some point my family began to see the forest instead of the Christmas trees and realize that despite all our rituals around the presents, our pleasure had almost nothing to do with the money that was spent, or even with the number of them. We began to lower the pressure on ourselves and shift our focus to the less stress-inducing parts of the holiday. We started by saying that everyone deserves one big present, but that we shouldn’t all be buying extras just to make sure everyone gets one. We decided to draw names so that we each knew for whom we were shopping for their big present. Drawing names worked very well and we transitioned from definitely buying something small for every person to only getting other gifts if particularly inspired.

As the number of presents declined, so did our stress levels in December. That turned out to be the nicest gift we could give each other. We began to have more energy and time for just being together on the holiday, cooking, talking, singing, reading aloud, taking walks. Before many more years passed we were down to just a few presents each. The habit of opening a present on Christmas Eve faded and was replaced with experiential gifts to be shared – like a new jigsaw puzzle or a bunch of fancy cheeses to try. Now the presents are entirely optional.

Our holiday memories are now more, not less, rich for having fewer things involved in the season. Our homes are less cluttered, causing the chosen items we do keep to stand out and enrich our lives more easily. We remember and celebrate family and friends through digital pictures and stories, rather than objects, and our days are happier for it.

Each year now as I enter my holiday vacation time, it’s clear that the biggest gift my family has given each other is freedom from obligation. The real gift and the real focus is being together. We have traded presents for presence.

Maintaining your book collection

Books are more available now than they have ever been at any time in history. Thanks to the internet, we now have access to the inventories of more new and used bookstores than any one person could browse in a lifetime and to the collections of individuals that they are willing to share or trade. Beyond that we have more books, both new and old, available in electronic form. Plus we can easily search the collections of libraries around the world, many of which will allow us through our own local libraries to borrow material using inter-library loan.

You can get pretty much any book you want.

Given that, what guidelines do you have for why you should keep a book in your house?

Here are mine:

  • I'm going to read or re-read it within four years.
  • I consult it at least once a year.
  • I periodically re-read or consult it and it has annotations in it which remain useful to me.
  • It is an object of beauty and/or sentiment which brings me frequent joy.
  • I wrote it. (Don't have any of these yet besides the bound copy of my senior thesis, but I'm workin' on it!)

Decide your guidelines and then look to see what you have that doesn't meet any of them. Donate those replaceable (or never needed again) books to the library or charity. Give the stuff you love more room and give yourself less unnessary weight of stuff in your life.

Extending Priority Inbox

This tip is primarily about a nice new tech tool, but non-Gmail users can skip down to general principles that should be helpful with any list of things to deal with.

Google Mail now offers a feature called "Priority Inbox" which allows you to have three tiers in your email inbox with automatically-detected (and adjustable) important messages sorted into the top section. I've given it a try and find it does help me prioritize my time better.

The default tiers are "Important," "Starred," and "Everything Else," but since I don't use stars that much and I do have an email-intensive volunteer project, I've taken advantage of the customization options to change the middle section to contain all the things in my inbox which have a particular label identifying it as part of that project. If you use Gmail, go under Settings and check out the options in the Priority Inbox tab; I think you'll like it.

Beyond this specific tool, though, there are some great principles at work here.

1. Clump stuff together.
It's easier to tackle similar items than dissimilar items. Put all those "add to calendar" notes in one pile and all those "bills to confirm and pay" in another. You'll complete the tasks faster if you don't have to keep switching modes from calendar to bill pay.

2. Isolate large projects.
This is the same principle, but has extra benefits with longer, more focused work. Being able to close off the "hot but not necessarily strategic" and the "noisy but low priority" from your view when you are doing a session of work on a project is a huge help in making effective use of that time. Whether it's the ability to sit at your desk with only that project folder in front of you and no other papers nagging at the corners of your vision or using a software feature like OmniFocus' Focused view, build yourself clear thinking space.

3. Enjoy your finite attention.
You are going to receive more demands upon your attention than you have time for. You'll get too much email and by all kinds of methods online and off you'll find out about too many cool links/shows/books/hobbies/ideas for anyone to explore in one lifetime. Embrace this.

If you're walking on the beach, trying to pick up every shell you see will impair, not increase, your enjoyment. Pass things by without anxiety. And by that I mean delete, archive, recycle, unsubscribe. Don't let things pile up in the hope you can get to them someday; let the chaff go. Heck, let some of the grain go; there will be more good stuff to capture your attention tomorrow.

Let "Everything Else" beyond "Important" and your big projects offer itself for your consideration and ruthlessly respond to almost none of it. Either it matters now or it belongs to a project (active or inactive or new) or it belongs in your "Someday/Maybe" cool storage for later consideration or else you don't need it.

When feeling overwhelmed, check to see if you're keeping too much stuff under consideration that you should just drop and move on from. Picture the intangible as physical and the silliness of what you've been asking yourself to do will often give you the lift you need to take care of yourself. If those 2,327 things in your inbox were pieces of paper you were trying to hold in your hands, of course you'd be stressed! Stop asking yourself to do that! Decide and do or let it go.

Core principles of Discardia: Decide Now

“Making decisions requires energy, but not deciding about whether to decide requires even more energy.”
— productivity guru David Allen

    Celebrating Discardia begins with deciding what belongs in your life and what does not. Deciding now is the best habit you can teach yourself. Once you decide, you can act – it is action that changes your life for the better.

    Without decisions our lives become a constant accumulation of junk. Things pile up, usually literally. Magazines and newspapers, clothes with missing buttons, mail to read, half- finished projects, obsolete computer parts, and on and on. The problem is not that you don't know how to get rid of these things – you know how trash, recycling and the Goodwill donation box work – it's making yourself get around to it. Rather than giving yourself a hard time for it, your first Discardian act should be to let go of feeling bad about what you haven't gotten done by now. You were doing something else; it was a choice; you're a big kid; it's okay.

    Now that that's out of the way, I'm not going to tell you to get cracking and change all your habits    overnight. No, what I'm suggesting is that you start with a few small steps that are the foundation for bigger changes. The key to fighting entropy is simple and threefold: slow down your accumulation of this stuff, make it easier for yourself to get rid of it on an ongoing basis, and habitually decide what you want to part with.

    Act as your own gatekeeper and decide what gets in. As you control the inflow, increase the outflow to rid yourself of stuff that only serves to make your life more awkward and overstuffed. Ask yourself “Why do I keep holding onto that?” and use your answer – or the fact that you have no answer – to decide whether or not it is time for that thing to move on.

    Make deciding as easy as you can. The more you do it, the easier it gets. You can even have a friend come over and help, holding up one object at a time as you lounge on the sofa with a glass of wine giving them the thumbs up or thumbs down.

    You can give your life a Discardian nudge any day of the year. Use your positive energy whenever you have it and allow yourself some slack when you don’t; the next occurrence of the holiday will be around soon to help you get back in gear!