Identify Your Anchor

What would you love to be rid of by New Year's Eve next year?

What is slowing you down or getting in your way? Draw a bullseye on it in your mind and start looking for ways to purge it from your life. What's the first thing you can do to chip away at it or minimize its impact on you? Write that thing down on your planner on the first day where you have a free hour. Do it.

Do This One Thing…

If you did one little act of discardia every day for the next year, how would it change your quality of life?

Want to give it a try?

Subscribe to the feed of this website in your feed reader (Sage, Netvibes, Bloglines, whatever floats your boat) or just visit this page every day and I'll give you one little suggestion of what you might want to do.

We're going to start on New Year's Eve…

– Dinah

Learning from the world

I had the good fortune this year to travel to Africa. My company decided to send me there for a few days for business and I immediately scheduled a three week vacation around those commitments. It was a wonderful journey and I met great people and saw amazing sights. I also learned some discardian lessons.

The first lesson: You Need Less Than You Think

Because I would be going on a safari with a very limited amount of personal storage space, I had to work out how to do the entire trip out of one 24 inch duffel bag and my small laptop bag. Fortunately, the conference was before the camping safari, so I was able to acquire some clothes that look good and are wrinkle resistant enough for meeting a group of customers and yet comfortable and rugged enough for 3 weeks of subsequent touring.

Layers make you flexible when it comes to clothes. I had an assortment of things that worked well together and allowed me to cope with both African afternoons in the 80s and freezing London nights.

You really can fit enough clothes in a tiny duffel. I brought one dress, 2 pairs of slacks (1 wool, 1 lighter weight), a pair of those safari pants that the legs can zip off to turn them into shorts, a few short sleeve shirts, a few long sleeve shirts, half a dozen socks and undies, a pair of stretch pants that could be worn under the dress or the pants to warm things up, and a big heavy wool jacket. Many of the clothes were deliberately chosen to be quick-drying and I usually did a bit of hand-washing every few nights. I brought one pair of shoes: sporty-stylish walking shoes in a cheerful red color. Cute enough to work with the conference clothes and sturdy enough to get me through all my adventures. This was just the right amount of clothing for my month away.

Now I’m looking at my next year of clothing buying and thinking how I could simplify my closets by focusing them a bit and getting more out of less.

Lesson #2: Most of the Rest of the World Gets By On Less Than You Can Imagine

After visiting the home of a woman in an informal settlement in Soweto and chatting with her as she cooked on a paraffin stove in her two-room jury-rigged shack, the quantity of stuff I have in my apartment alarms me. And I’ve been consciously reducing my belongings over the last few years!

Miriam didn’t have many things, but everything she had had a purpose. Her home was painfully simple – and I do hope that she’ll soon realize her dream of moving into a more solid home, perhaps even with plumbing in the house – but she had put her heart into it and made it clean and cheerful. Her wallpaper was crafted from bright green wrappers from some household product and the exterior was painted gaily. The dirt floor was scrupulously swept and a few plants were growing in her yard.

Visiting Miriam’s house and a girl’s orphanage near Nairobi and a Maasai village made it very clear that it is not number or newness of possessions which make a home happy.

The corollary to this lesson is You Need What You Need, But You Don’t Need Much More Than You Need

Lesson #3: Compared to Most of the Rest of the World, I’m Rich

This one’s pretty obvious and yet I find myself realizing how much I’d taken for granted the luxury of a solid, non-leaky house, of indoor toilets, of a fuel supply and plentiful clean water piped right into the house, of a great variety of fresh foods, and of clean clothes in good condition. These are incredible treasures and the most essential of them is sanitation. In many places I visited the women must spend a large part of their day walking to gather water and firewood. When that eats so much of their time, they have less ability to spend effort on other household or community activities or on their businesses. Toilets and pumps may not be romantic, but they are some of the most effective tools to change people’s quality of life, and particularly women’s lives.

As I begin appreciating what I have more, buying fewer new things and getting rid of things I don’t need, it makes it easier to afford (or notice I could already afford) to contribute to other people’s quality of life. Sometimes that bit of money comes from skipping something I realize isn’t really worth spending my money on. (Never getting into wearing makeup sure has saved me a lot of money over the years!) Sometimes it comes from acknowledging that something brings me enough pleasure that I really should invest for the long term in it. Once you do the math you may figure out that ad hoc purchases are actually costing you a lot more than you really need to spend. (Hey, coffee drinkers, do you love the ritual enough that perhaps you should get that nice espresso machine and a couple bottles of Torani syrup and quit buying those cups of "fourbucks" coffee, hmm? And you bestseller readers, you know the library has them too and you can often reserve them online in advance? And city dwellers, do you really need to own a car? I find I save hundreds of dollars a month by using public transit, taxis, City Carshare, and the occasional rental for a weekend away.) Think about where your money goes and where you want it to be going.

I made a post on my MetaGrrrl site in which I recommended a few good places you can donate your money to make a difference. I’ve decided this year that I will make sure to get $1000 donated to Heifer Project’s Women in Livestock Development Program. Once that goal is achieved – and your help is much appreciated! – I’ll start a campaign to raise money for sanitation projects. The Discardian Well has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Getting to the happy home

I’ve been practicing discardia for several years now and am now reaping significant benefits. My home is light, airy, uncluttered and comforting. Waking in it or returning after being away gives me an immediate sense of my load being lightened. Living in it is restorative.

I did not achieve this in one blow, but by gradual steps. Here are some of them:

1. I picked a place to live which was the right underlying canvas for the home I want: lots of windows, wood floors, white walls, views of greenery from the windows.

2. I moved in with everything I own, a small amount of which went into the basement, but most was arranged around my 6 spaces (kitchen, living/dining room, entry/hallway, bathroom, bedroom, and "the other room") and 2 small closets. Having it all out where I can see it allows me to start evaluating what I want and what is no longer part of the life I want to be living.

3. I immediately began watching for things to change. This is what makes the difference. Keep an eye out for a change you can make which would improve a space and then – here’s the important bit – do it. Some examples:

  • My downstairs neighbor, a likeable but crotchity old guy, makes strange harrumphing noises late at night or talks loudly on the phone sometimes and I can hear it through the floor of my bedroom. Solution: swap my initial arrangement of bedroom & "other room" and get a real bed instead of a futon (which puts my ear too close to the floor). Now my space feels much more private.
  • I have a lot of paper-based projects I want to do (e.g. going through old writing & pictures & souvenirs and putting some of it into my weblog) and these tend to look pretty cluttered. Solution: shop around for a while until I find a good, affordable office armoire so that I can have workspace where things can be left spread out, but the doors can be closed so I only look at it when I want to.
  • I want to be able to have friends over for dinner, but I don’t have any dining room furniture. I don’t need anything fancy – a casual cottage style suits my taste – so second hand would be fine, especially since after buying the office armoire and the bedroom drawers, I have spent my household budget for a while. Solution: share my hopes and dreams with friends; it turned out that a couple of my best friends had a table and 3 chairs in their basement that they didn’t need. It’s now at my place on indefinite loan and has been getting lots of use. A great bonus once I had it turned out to be that I pulled a lot of old boardgames out of storage and have had good times playing with friends.

4. I prepared for discardia. Set up a recycling bag for papers (not just newspapers but all kinds of paper clutter to be purged) and move things to it as soon as you know you don’t want them; sort the mail over this bag. Set up a "charity" bag and put non-trash, non-recycling, non-sell stuff in it as soon as you think "why do I still have this?". Let things get on to a new life. If you have things to get rid of which are going to be easy to sell or trade (and the work to do that will be worth it) also set up bags or boxes for those books, clothes, etc. Note: be sure to develop a good sense of what will be wanted at, say, your local Buffalo Exchange or Crossroads Trading Company. I’ve learned that I’m not enough of a brand-name clothes buyer to have much of interest to them. For me, it’s usually not worth the hassle and I just donate old clothes to charity.

5. I purge whenever I can. Heading on an errand near Goodwill? Grab that bag even if it isn’t full and get it gone. Feel like puttering in book or CD stores? How about going to the one that trades and see if they’ll take the things you’re ready to part with. Before you leave the house be sure to look up the nearest library to the store so you can donate anything not taken for trade. You’ll scratch your browsing itch, get more junk out of your house, do good, and maybe even get some books or records without spending any money.

After time, you’ll find like me that you’ve carved away the stuff you don’t want in your life and added a few special things you do – as the Craftsman motto says "Have nothing in your home which is not beautiful or useful or both". Now you can more easily spot the fewer remaining things you want to change and it’s easier to do the things which keep the place nice. For example, I just felt like a little bit of something to nibble on and walked from my bedroom to the kitchen. Here’s what happened along the way (I’ve bolded the special things added to my life):

I got off the cozy bed where I’d been sitting comfortably with my Apple 12" Powerbook G4 laptop computer writing this post. I noticed I’d not put away the clothes I removed last night and took a moment to put the clean ones away and toss the dirty ones in my hamper, two handmade baskets from Ghana which I ordered from Novica. I walked past my bookcase in the hall to the bright sunny living room and then into the kitchen, stepping from smooth wood floor to pleasing bright green carpet from Flor (which now covers the ugly old linoleum). Looking out the window, over trees to the city beyond, I put away a few dry dishes from the chrome dishrack and then noticing no fresh fruit in the shiny wire fruit basket, I took a little fruit leather pack from my well-stocked cupboard and nibbled that as I wandered back to the Other Room. This has served as guest room, project space and office, hence it’s rather generic name. After having a studio apartment, the luxury of that extra flexible space is well worth the extra rent. On the way back through the living room I pulled the small, cheerful, sage green sofa out from the wall an inch or so to prevent the back edge getting crunched and slid my grandparents’ coffee table back into alignment in front of it. All ready for lounging again! In the Other Room I didn’t have any particular plan, I just looked. And noticed the little stack of 2 books and a VHS video I had set aside to donate to the library. Aha! I picked them up and put them at the top of the stairs with the video and book I intend to return to the library today. Then I picked up my laptop again and came back through the house writing this account from the top of my bedroom dresser, the kitchen counter, and now sitting at the dining table looking at my beautiful view and listening to a favorite album from childhood in iTunes.

Give yourself a life you’ll love. It just takes lots of little steps and being careful not to buy things that aren’t part of that life.

Internal Clutter

Discardia isn’t just about things. You can build up too much of intangible stuff you don’t need as well. Personally I’ve found that it’s harder to get my head clear when my house is a chaotic mess, but if you need to tackle the head first, just go for a walk and get yourself somewhere you can sit and think for a bit.

I recommend the beach, but a hillside, park or quiet corner at the museum can do the job as well. Go where you won’t hear other people’s conversations or see any advertisments.

Sit and be still.

Do nothing.

Pull yourself out of your head and into a quiet space.

Then, when you’ve slowed yourself down and gotten out of your workaday brainrace, take a look at what’s taking up your mental space.

Are you angry? What needs to happen for you to let go of that upset feeling?
Anger burns up an enormous amount of energy. If something was wrong, why should it deserve one more minute of your time? Write a letter, schedule some counseling, forgive someone or yourself, but let it go and move on.

Are you sad? Depressed?
That’s a tough space to get out of. You can’t just "make happy" or let that one go so easily. There are some good techniques to loosen depression’s hold on you. Get active. Every day spend at least half an hour walking or gardening and being aware of your surroundings. Get involved. Do something regularly to help other people. Volunteer once a month at a soup kitchen or the library. Help a senior or ill person in your neighborhood with errands or groceries. Get aware of the good times. Keep a journal and be sure to write in it when times are good as well as when they’re bad. Depression can make it seem like things will be bad from here on out, but depression is a liar and it helps to be able to see your cycles.

Are you worried and fretful?
Watch out for worrying about multiple incompatible outcomes and thinking you’ll have to have the strength to weather them all. Remember that the best way to get yourself through future hardship is not to make yourself a wreck right now. For each worry, find one small tangible thing you can do to make it less likely or less harmful should it become real. Remember you don’t have to solve everything all at once. A step in the right direction is a good thing and better than being a deer in the headlights.

Are you bored and lethargic?
Sometimes it’s a retreat from stress elsewhere in your life, sometimes it’s frustration causing you to give up and be a lump, but boredom is definitely a trap you build yourself and it can be the easiest to escape. The cure is to stop doing that kind of doing nothing where your mind isn’t still. Turn off the television. Cover it up and pretend you don’t have one. Don’t turn on the computer if your form of ennui involves mindless surfing and evenings lost to unsatisfying chats. Make something. Write a letter, you know, on paper. Go spend time with someone old. Ask them to tell you about their favorite things to do when they were in their teens. Learn to cook. Reconnect with one old friend every day for a week. Just keep yourself from wasting time in the unfulfilling ways that have become a habit and remember that you have good options.

What else fills your head that you’re ready to part with? How can you sweep it out the door and get on with the good stuff?

Carry on in the comments with more thoughts and ideas, please.

The season of giving? Maybe, but not necessarily of shopping.

Around about the week before Thanksgiving, the pressure starts. The ads begin to suggest "the perfect gift for the such & 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 messsage of the barrage of Christmas music, holiday movie promotions, and red & 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 tempation to do so grows).

O, 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?"

There is no time of year more likely to run us all ragged than the holidays. It’s not as though family tensions disappear; if anything, all the pressure to be 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 some nice stuff for my folks." 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 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. 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 at 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, maybe after the holidays when things aren’t so busy, but even if you just let them know that you appreciate them, you can give something much greater than some hastily selected present.

There are many other kinds of gifts which won’t strain your credit or leave you frazzled:

– cooked or crafted things which you actually enjoy making
My friend Kristin 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 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, especially by my Uncle Larry and my friend Shannon. Okay, maybe I wind up spending some of that money I saved 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 time than cash, your time in honor of someone else)
My grandmother has a tradition of giving us Heifer Project gifts, which means we get all the amusement of receiving a goat, without the actual goat in the house part.

– memories
Last year my family began "unwrapping" memories for each other. Everyone took turns at telling a favorite memory of each other person. Those stories reminded us of others and it was a lovely way to spend time together.

As I enter my holiday vacation time, I have to say that this year the biggest gift my family has given me is freedom from obligation. We decided at Thanksgiving that we wouldn’t shop for presents this year. Being able to pass through the hectic month December without that pressure has been truly wonderful. We’ll have stockings – even my grandmother, who’s almost 90, likes to open her stocking on Christmas morning – but those are little fun things, no pressure. This year the real gift and the real focus is being together.

Where To Start?

Most of us are busy people, busy with work, busy with play, busy with our communities and friends and families. We look at our homes and think "Oh my gawd, there is no way I can get this clutter under control without spending weeks working on it full time!" It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the seemingly vast distance between the way things are now in your life and the calm, clear, open life we’d like to be enjoying.

Sarah wrote:

I have a tiny house, and 3 generations worth of clutter. I need an action plan, especially as it’s getting hot and I’m longing for long breezy vistas. Any game plan on where to start in the house? Has anyone here tried removing Everything from a room and putting things in from scratch?

I think taking everything single thing out of a room could just wind up being an enormous chore at the end of a day of which you might have one mostly empty room and the rest of the house worse off than when you started. However, the underlying idea is a good one.

There is a tremendous power in having a space where you can relax and not be bothered by the sight of undone chores and random junk. That island of sanity can be your goal and, soon, your touchstone for the kind of life you want to be living.

The first place to start is in stillness at your favorite time of day. Turn off the tv and the radio. If you share your home, get the other residents in on the project or out of your way. Set down whatever you’re holding. Just walk through your house looking not at the clutter, but at the spaces, at the light. See through the contents to the place. Is there a view through a window which you particularly like? or a special corner where the sunlight makes patterns and warmth? a quiet corner or a central spot in the action which you love? We’re not talking about remodeling here, so begin with the bones and breath of your existing space. Find the place that matters most to you and begin with that. Getting the clutter and chaos out of your life is hard; you deserve a big reward right up front.

Now, if it makes you feel good and pampered, get yourself a drink – cup of good tea, glass of wine, hot cocoa, whatever pleases your sense of smell and taste – and put on some of your favorite music to please your ears.

Look at your chosen space. What is keeping you from enjoying it to the fullest right now? Maybe the right furniture isn’t there. If it’s going to be your reading nook and there’s no chair and no good lamp and no handy bookcase, that’s got to change. If it’s going to be your writing space and there’s a tv where your desk ought to be, that’s won’t do at all. Or maybe the furniture is there, but it’s crowded in by other furniture, knick knacks, magazines and flotsam.

In either case, some things have to change. Take a look at this suggestion I gave to someone planning to move and perform that kind of sweep on just your chosen area. Instead of "Unpack First", label a box "Better Place" for things that you still want out somewhere, just not here. Instead of "Unpack Soon", label a box "Storage" and today’s date. Instead of "Borderline", label a box "Keep?". "Charity" is still a good name for the last box. Remember: the goal is to clear your chosen space. If you can’t decide about something, put it in the "Keep?" box.

When you’re done, tape the "Storage" box(es) closed. If in two years, they’re still taped closed, you should open them and transfer everything in them to trash, recycling or charity. Maybe there’s some old family heirloom that goes back into a box with a new date, but if you haven’t even looked at this stuff in two years, odds are good you don’t really want it. (By the way, if you think you might want something out of that storage box, or you have a lot of them, go ahead and write contents on the side. It’s much easier to read boxes than to open them at random and paw through them).

Move the "Better Place" and "Keep?" boxes to somewhere else in the house. Unpacking them will be your next project after you have your lovely chosen space.

Now look at your new territory again. Better, yes? Does it have the wrong furniture in it? This is the time to start doing your furniture rearranging – not before you got rid of the clutter, you see, because if you get bogged down now at least you got that crap out of the way and you’ve made some progress. Also, if you’re moving furniture out of the way here – whether to another room or to storage or out to the curb – before you bring the proper furniture in, clean up your chosen space. Dust, sweep, wipe down. Make it not just uncluttered, but fresh.

If you don’t have exactly the right piece of furniture yet, see if you have something close to serve as a placeholder for what you really want. Partway to your dream is still a good direction to be heading.

Say now, look at that. Your space.

Enjoy it. Defend it against encroachment. Start your housecleaning here so that it’s always the nicest spot. From this new castle you will plan your next campaign, or maybe just have the peace of mind to ignore the rest of the mess for a while.

Getting Rid of Stuff

This Discardian tip is about letting go of material objects. There are two main reasons for ending up with a bunch of things you don’t really want or need: entropy and guilt.

You know how the entropy ones happen; they just pile up, usually literally. Magazines & newspapers, clothes with missing buttons, mail to read, half-finished projects, obsolete computer parts…

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 clean the house. If you didn’t wanna before you probably don’t wanna now. No, what I’m suggesting is that you take a few small steps to achieve two things: slow down your accumulation of this stuff and make it easier for you to get rid of it in future.

Pick a room in your home (or an area of a room, such as your desk) and look at it with fresh eyes. Don’t pick the area that depresses you most; be nice to yourself and start with something around the middle of your list of annoyances. Now ask yourself some questions about what you see.

Is there a category of stuff that is cluttering up your space and which you want to be rid of?
A common example of this is catalogs. There might be something you want in there – how will you ever know if you don’t read it?! Forget about it. If you need it, you’ll seek it out. If you don’t seek it out, you don’t need it right now. Another good example is old toys that don’t get played with anymore (by you, the kids, the cat, whoever) because they’re broken, old & dirty, or just boring.

Where does this category of stuff come from?
In the case of catalogs, they come in the mail. Some are solicited – the result of you buying from that company or an affiliate of it – and some are just deadtree spam. Old toys come from your own shopping + time; they are digested remnants of past fun.

Where should this category of stuff go?
Catalogs should go into the recycling bin. Old toys that won’t be fun for anyone go in the trash and boring ones can go to A Good Cause (about which more later).

Now you have one or two questions to ask about the category on whose ass you’ve decided to celebrate a little Discardia.

How can you slow the incoming flow of this category of stuff?
In the case of catalogs, the solution involves the telephone. Pick up one of the least interesting looking catalogs, call that 1-800 phone number and tell the operator eagerly awaiting your order that you no longer wish to receive the catalog. Also tell them (and tell anyone you order things from) that you do not want them to sell your name & address to anyone. You don’t have to do all those catalogs at once; just when you have 5 minutes and the energy. For the old toys, the solution might be to buy fewer or buy better ones that will last longer.

How can you make disposal of this category of stuff easier?
For the catalogs, make your recycling process easier. Set up a sack or other receptacle in a convenient spot (ours is in the kitchen) and sort the mail over it; if you never set it down where the piles build up, it can’t contribute to the clutter. For the toys, start a habit of physical motion when your mind moves the item to your “junk” list; when you think “that catnip mouse is a lost cause”, immediately reach down, pick it up and fling it in the trash. The old toys that aren’t really trash – they’re just boring – can be just as easy to deal with. Set up another bag for things to donate to A Good Cause (or sell) and put the rejected items in the bag as soon as you think “I don’t really want that anymore.”

This last point brings us to the other reason for things piling up. Maybe you feel guilty about getting rid of that “perfectly good” toy you don’t like anymore. Stop. It may be perfectly good for someone, but that someone isn’t you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with you getting rid of it. Who are you worried about offending? (As the Ikea ad says “Many of you feel sorry for this lamp. You are crazy. It has no feelings.”)

Guilt is an insidious thing, though, and often not so easily brushed aside. Let’s think about where the guilt comes from. There are four main kinds of guilt which lead you to keep things you no longer want or need. The first of these is that feeling that if you get rid of this object it will mean that you wasted your money. It causes you to behave as if somehow by keeping it around you are improving your chances of compensation for the expense.

How can you avoid the guilt of bad buying decisions?
Think about purchases longer before making them. Also, recognize that you will make some bad decisions.

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists agree, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean – Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World

More about amends in a moment. The second kind of guilt to consider is gift guilt. Someone gave it to you and either you didn’t like it from the start or you’ve outgrown it (in some sense or another). Tell me this: when you visit the homes of your friends and family do you check to see if your past gifts are in use? And if they aren’t, are you really more likely to be hurt and upset with them than you are to think “Hmm, whoops, guess that wasn’t really the right thing; I’ll try a gift certificate next time”? If the answer to both those questions is yes, consider yourself slapped and cut it out; it isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.

How can you part with unwanted gifts without considering it an insult to the giver?
Give everyone permission not to be able to read your mind and give yourself permission to change. The intent of gift giving is to make someone feel good (and/or to repay a social obligation). Recognize the act and the intent. Perhaps keep the gift around for a courteous amount of time, but on no account lie excessively about how much you like things you don’t – you don’t want to set yourself up for a matching bad gift the next time. Once the necessary niceties have been observed enough to communicate your gratitude for the intent, you should part with unwanted gifts without guilt. Disposing of them may require more discretion than with other things – the yard sale which the giver is likely to attend is a bad method, but the bottom of your Goodwill bag covered by that shirt that doesn’t fit anymore is just dandy. Quietly get rid of it and if the giver asks about it later, say something about your appreciation of the occasion and their thoughtfulness, but that it just didn’t fit with your other things.

Note: there are some gifts into which a great deal of hard work was put. For these, it is probably best to come clean and let the giver have the opportunity to take back their artistic efforts rather than sneakily disposing of it. Bite the bullet and say “I really appreciate your making me something so special. I am impressed by your thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, this painting just doesn’t fit with the rest of my decor/I don’t wear the color of this hand-knit sweater/I’m allergic to taxidermied animals…” Whatever. It might be a rough conversation, but it’s better than the “You gave away my masterpiece to Goodwill?!!!” one.

How do you get better gifts?
Tell people what you want, especially if what you want is nothing. Also, for those whose perception of your tastes is consistently dead wrong (or for everyone if you’re really on a Discardian kick or planning a cross-country move), let them know what you really want is an experience, like dinner or some movie tickets, or, even safer, a donation to one of your favorite charities (Heifer Project is a good one for this; everyone likes a goat for Christmas).

So now we come to gifts from yourself. Souvenirs can be very hard to part with because of the memory they represent. It took me almost 8 years to decide to find a new home for the pair of big rubber squeak rats that were the mascots of my bookstore, Inkspot. Their names are Fido & Hepsibah and they now live with a couple of completely twisted friends who will enjoy the way Hepsibah’s squeak is more delicate and feminine and how Fido can be made to breathe heavily in a sinister fashion rather than emit a squeak.

How do you let go of a souvenir without letting go of the good or at least important time it reminds you of?
This one is actually not as tough as it seems. Memories are actually easier to digitize than you might think. Start a web site (TypePad and Blogger are great for this) and write about why the object matters to you and what it reminds you of (…the 2 teenage girls who shrieked and jumped when I squeaked Fido at them). Take digital photos or scan flat things and put the pictures and the stories up on your web site. My friend Lilly did a great project like this for all her old t-shirts. Or if web publishing isn’t quite your style, just get together some friends and tell your stories as a way of bidding things farewell. Often you’ll find it isn’t the souvenir itself that the story is really about.

The last type of object-related guilt I want you to consider is what I term Dream Duty. This is associated with objects you keep because they represent someone you want (or wanted) to become. If I don’t get rid of this guitar/skateboard/ballroom dress, I will eventually get around to using it proficiently, even though I don’t practice. Folks, ya gotta shit or get off the pot. Start making time to work on that dream or let it go. If you want to fit into those pants again, eat less & exercise or get a pair like them in the size you are now.

How do you decide whether or not to keep the dream & its associated objects in your life?
Rather than trying to decide about a particular object, come at it from the other angle; what are your dreams now? Take some time, give yourself permission to imagine anything, and see where your heart is leading you. The book Wishcraft by Barbara Sher is a great guide to this process. Decide what really matters to you, where you really want to be heading, and then look again at the dream duty objects taking up space in your home. If those things aren’t part of your top goals, get them out of your way. Again, as with souvenirs, acknowledge who you were when you dreamed those dreams and allow yourself to be someone different now. Sometimes you’ll find your dreams have changed, that’s the easier situation to deal with. The hard one is when you still have the dream but it just doesn’t seem realistic. You may still want to be a ballerina, but if you’re about to celebrate your 40th birthday, you may have to figure out what part of that dream held the most appeal and how you can get that without having to trade yourself in for a body 20 years younger. Wishcraft is helpful with this dilemma as well.

Whatever the reason for having objects you don’t want or need crowding your life, one of the best gifts you can give yourself is the ability to let things go. Put your energy where it counts: in making your dreams real and in living a less stressful life. There is one more question to ask:
What could you be doing or feeling if all this stuff wasn’t in the way?

Please share your reactions, tips and challenges in the comments below.