How to throw things away

Trash bins

Time to throw things away. We do, of course, separate our waste.

Keeping your life confined to two bags and a suitcase requires a constant effort. Yesterday I flew to Budapest, where I will be living for the next half year or so. This meant I that I spent most of the day before on packing everything I would need during the coming months. And, more importantly, throwing out the stuff that I wouldn’t need. So how do you throw things away effectively?

Accumulating stuff

But first I’d like to focus on something else. I am committed to a minimalist lifestyle. Yet somehow I still manage to acquire more things than I can take with me. This mostly happens in one of three ways. Being aware of them may help you to accumulate less:

  1. I buy something that I’m not completely satisfied with, but don’t replace it. Then later I see something better, buy it, but still hold on to my previous purchase “since it’s in perfectly good condition”. Of course, I end up using the new item, and have the old item just sit around in a closet. This way I had about half a dozen backpacks, some shirts I rarely wear, some semi-useful electronics, and more stored somewhere.
  2. I ‘forget’ to throw away my old stuff. Even the best items wear down. A laptop or smartphone becomes useless after a few years, as it can’t keep up with the latest software. Clothes get worn, or otherwise just go out of fashion. Like any non-minimalist consumer, I buy new things. I’m just more careful about it. But when I do, I often don’t get rid of my old clothes or electronics, “because they might just come in handy some day”. They rarely do.
  3. I collect paper. Books. Newspaper or magazine clippings. Postcards and letters people send me. I like to keep them around ‘for later reference’, or just for sentimental value. But that value turns out to be relatively little. And paper weighs a lot.

Throwing stuff away

During the months I was travelling through Asia, I had stored much of the stuff I had accumulated before with friends and family. For my trip I needed to pack light; lighter than two bags and a suitcase. And to the extent that I wasn’t bothering anyone with my things–my friends had enough empty storage space to put up with them–it seemed harmless.

But that’s a wrong way of thinking about it. Rather than being rid of a rarely used object, if I store it somewhere, it still exists in my mind. I worry about how to get access to it when I need it; about what to do if my friend decides to move. When you throw away something it is gone for good, both physically and mentally. You save space in your suitcase as well as in your mind. And that keeps you mobile to pursue your dreams. (Dreams rarely require a lot of ‘stuff’. How many people do you know who’s goal in life is to fill up their house with objects?)

	<li>Go multifunctional</li>

Everything I own in two bags and a suitcase.

So before moving to Budapest, it was time to get rid of some things. Here are some principles* that I find useful for keeping my life clear of clutter:

  • Digitalize as much as you can. Books you can read on your e-reader. Music plays on your smartphone. For photos and videos you have your laptop. Most newspapers and magazines have an online version these days, from which you can save the clippings to Pocket or Evernote. There is really no need to keep any books, CDs, DVDs, papers, magazines or other media (unless you’re a vintage media collector, in which case you probably shouldn’t read this blog). Whenever someone hands me their business card, I enter the information into Google Contacts at the first opportunity and throw away the card.
  • Use it or throw/give it away. It is much better to rigorously decide whether something has a place in your life or not. If something is truly useful or makes you significantly happier, then keep it. Use it a lot. If you don’t use something all that often, you’re better off without it. If the need arises, you can always rent/borrow/get something. As an example, I do carry a large professional chef’s knife with me in my bag. It’s something I use almost daily, and cooking with a dull knife is no fun. I can’t rely on the cutlery that the typical furnished apartment is stocked with. On the other hand I don’t have a winter coat. I mostly stay in warm countries, and if it does get cold, I’ll just wear a few layers of t-shirts and long-sleeves under my light rain jacket.
  • Go multifunctional. It is better to keep around things that have multiple functions than single-purpose items. The ultimate example is the smartphone. This small device serves as a phone, a book, an internet browser, a typewriter, a music player and a video player. An example of a bad thing to have is a pair of dress shoes. True, they look great with a suit, but they are useless for runnning, hiking, or just wearing with jeans and a hoodie. Ditch the suckers!
  • ‘Just in case’ rarely happens. If you are keeping something around just in case, you should probably throw it out. I used to have a plethora of cables and adapters to be able to connect anything with anything else. Only most of the time I didn’t need to connect anything. There might come a time that I’d want to connect my laptop to an old TV via HDMI-to-SCART, but it’s not that likely. Meanwhile, anything you’re keeping around just in case eats up storage space and encumbers you every day. No need to do that.
  • Err on the side of risk. If you’re not sure whether to throw something out, toss it. If it turns out that you were wrong, you can always get a new one. But more often you’ll discover that life is perfectly acceptable without it. A few years ago I couldn’t imagine living in house without a microwave oven. Guess what? It’s really not a problem at all. Now when I need to heat up something, I just use a cooking pot.

Taking off

In the end my two bags weighed in at 25 kilograms, the exact amount of luggage I had purchased for my flight. My trolley suitcase was slightly overweight at 11kg, but I don’t consider that a major issue. Add to that the weight of the clothes on my body, and the total weight of all that I have is less than 38kg.

That’s an amount I’m comfortable with. I could do with even less, but I don’t see the need to do so. I wouldn’t want to bring everything I own on a hiking trip, but I can easily take it with me if I’m changing cities. If necessary, I could walk for up to half and hour with my gear without breaking too much of a sweat (although I prefer to take a cab when carrying this much luggage).

Unfortunately, I’ll probably have to go through the entire routine of throwing things away again when I leave Budapest. Accumulating new stuff is just hard to avoid.

*They are guidelines rather than principles. I won’t berate you for hanging on to your wedding video or that last postcard your grandma sent you before she passed away.


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