And here it is! A guest post courtesy of Jennifer Gresham, the fantastic blogger over at Everyday Bright. I hope you enjoy it!
I used to run marathons, which meant I was buying a new pair of running shoes every year or so. The problem was I didn’t throw the old ones away, resulting in an overflowing (and rather smelly) closet. One day my husband asked me why I wasn’t getting rid of them. I said, “Well, I might need them. They’d be great for activities like white water rafting!”
If you’re laughing really hard right now, then you and my husband had the same reaction. I’ve been white water rafting exactly two times in my 38 years. Hardly a case for keeping a closet full of shoes. Then again, our brains evolved the prefrontal cortex exactly for this purpose: to contemplate the future and plan for it. It’s the same reason we overpack for vacations (it might be cold! or hot!) and clutter our offices with papers and forms (in case the hard drive crashes).
So if you’ve been listening to Seth Godin talk about how to quiet the Lizard Brain, I’m going to talk to you about how to outsmart the Mammalian Brain.
The next time you want to hang on to something just in case, ask yourself these questions:
How likely is the event?
Like white water rafting, many of us save things for event that are extremely unlikely. Be honest with yourself. If you haven’t had cause to use the item in over a year, it’s probably time to let it go. Note that this can be especially hard with items you used to use a lot. My husband and I have been hauling around boxes of chemistry textbooks, because we used to be teachers and back then, they were essential references. Even though neither of us intends to return to teaching, we really struggled to give them up.
How bad could it be really?
Ask yourself what the consequences would be if you did need the item again, and didn’t have it. Even if you gave away your last raincoat, a pretty practical item, the worst is that…you’d get wet! When we really stop to examine the worst case scenario, we often find it isn’t nearly as bad as our lizard brains have been hinting all along.
How rare is the item?
This comes up when packing for vacations all the time, but it’s also true when you take a look at the stuff in your home. For example, every house on the block has a tool box. Why does everyone in the neighborhood need their own hammer? We happen to be living on an Air Force base, where they have a self-help shack full of lawn mowers, lightbulbs, and other handy items. But there’s nothing preventing you from starting your own “communal resources” shed. You might even gain some new friends in the process! For items that really aren’t suitable to sharing, remember that most things can be purchased or even rented if absolutely necessary.
Is it really about money?
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits recently wrote a post for people who were worried that decluttering might be wasteful. If you spent money on something, it’s okay to throw or give it away. Leo argues the real waste is to keep something simply because it cost you money in the past. But contingency keeping goes a step further. It says, I don’t want to have to pay for this again.
To combat this, I like to think about storage costs. Because it’s hard to put a monetary value on the psychic cost of storing things you might (or might not) need, ask yourself how much it would cost to have someone else store it for you? Would you be willing to pay someone even $5 a day to store your camping gear that you haven’t used in years? No? Then you shouldn’t keep it either. The cost of storage turns out to be higher than the cost of buying it again should you need it.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I still struggle to overcome my planning tendencies. But by asking yourself the questions above, I think you’ll find a whole new list of items that aren’t as necessary as you thought they were.
Jennifer Gresham is the author of the blog Everyday Bright, where she writes insightful and uplifting articles on overcoming obstacles to personal fulfillment. She is also a PhD biochemist and poet.