If you’re like many Americans, you’ve made efforts to unclutter your home or life — perhaps even made uncluttering your new year’s resolution. Maybe you’ve gotten so frustrated with your messy desk, crowded kitchen, and inaccessible garage that you’ve started dreaming of getting rid of all your belongings and starting over from scratch.
Then perhaps you might like to try the 100 Thing Challenge. That’s the name of the year-long feat achieved by a Californian man called Dave Bruno, who managed to whittle down his belongings to fewer than 100 items — and lived to blog about it. That book’s now been turned into a book published earlier this month: “The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul.”
Now, before you get too excited, Bruno’s 100 things didn’t include a lot of objects that you and I may consider individual things. For one, the guy lives with his wife and two daughters — and anything that could be construed as shared property, be it the bed or eating utensils, were not entered into the count. Then he counted whole groups of items — most notably, books — as a single object.
That meant Bruno’s 100 things mostly consisted of adventure gear for surfing, hiking and camping — plus his everyday clothes. Considering the fact that the guy didn’t seem to have a fashion addiction to begin with, the 100 Thing Challenge seems rather skewed towards counting up the things Bruno already had little of — while glossing over many of the problem areas that got Bruno to start the 100 Thing Challenge in the first place, like the kitchen drawer full of knickknacks or the family’s holiday decorations in the garage, all considered community property and uncounted towards the challenge.
Of course, Bruno may have tackled some of the community clutter without mentioning it in the book. And in a sense, Bruno’s decision about communal property points to a good rule of thumb to follow: If you want to take up a radical, self-imposed challenge, don’t impose it on the people you live with, lest they end up not wanting to live with you anymore.
Here’s how our friends at the Minimalists approached the challenge:
· First, take inventory. You can’t get rid of stuff if you don’t know what you have.
· Next, mark the must-keep stuff. There are certain things you know you’re going to keep. Your Nolan Ryan rookie card. Your autographed Cat’s Cradle. Your ipod. Mark those with a star, count how many those are, to see how many you have left.
· Then, the borderline stuff. What is stuff you might want to keep, but you’re not sure yet? Mark them with a circle or something, and see where your count is. If you’re over 100, you have some cutting to do. Cut until you get down to 100.
· Get rid of the rest. Everything you’re not going to keep, you should get rid of. You have some options: donate it to charity; find someone who wants it; list it on Freecycle; throw it away; sell it on eBay or Craigslist; hold a garage sale. You could end up making some good cash on this. However you do it, get rid of it.
· If 100 is too easy for you, choose a lower number. You may already be a minimalist. If you only have to get rid of 10 items to get down to 100, you might want to do something more challenging — say 70 or 50 (or 42).
· Decide how to count things. It’s really up to you. Do you count baseball cards individually? Probably not — count them as one collection. How about a computer system? Your ipod and assorted gear? A good rule-of-thumb you might use: if everything goes in one case, count it as one item. If it’s all separate, count it as multiple items.
In any case, Bruno’s choices for his 100 Thing Challenge made his challenge seem rather like simple, normal living, at least on a visible level — so normal, in fact, that Bruno says TV stations initially interested in capturing his story changed their minds after realizing the challenge didn’t make for much dramatic footage. That sense of normalcy, however, is exactly what Bruno says was a surprising delight about the 100 Thing Challenge.
“Life is just about the same without an abundance of stuff — shhshh, quiet now — except without all that crap, there’s more room for living life to the fullest,” Bruno writes. In one chapter, he describes a near-perfect day he had — which was filled with the simple joys of living: A decent day at work, a little surfing, and date night with his wife when his in-laws offered to babysit. “What more could a person on this earth want than a beautiful place to live, a connection with nature, a stable job, a healthy family, kind in-laws, a loving spouse, Mexican food, and sex?”
Your list of perfect-day necessities may differ a bit from Bruno’s, but he does point out that joy and contentment require relatively few things — 20, to be exact, in his case — if you live in Southern California. Oddly, Bruno’s list of 20 doesn’t include a toothbrush, which made me wonder if his wife considered Bruno's almost-perfect day to be a near-perfect one for her too….
Downsizing an overstuffed closet or reigning in the desire for the latest tech gadgets may be the big de-stuff-ing challenges for many Americans, but for Bruno, the main challenge seems to have been letting go of hobbies he wasn’t pursuing. From collecting pens to woodworking to building toy train tracks, he apparently started a lot of hobbies — and bought all the accouterments for those hobbies — and then didn’t put them to much use. He muses philosophically about this tendency of his, concluding that a consumer culture often leads people to believe that they can achieve goals — whether physical or emotional, specific or nebulous — by buying things:
Often I have grabbed hold of my possessions and started hammering. Somehow I have thought that fancy pens could knock away at my circumstances and shape me into a rough-and-tumble businessman. Or toy trains could refashion my youth. Or gear and adventuring could chip away until a perfectly content and secure soul took form. Or woodworking tools could manufacture a life of confidence. Maybe my sculpting handiwork could turn me into someone bigger and more competent than I am. Someone who could grasp at things beyond my reach.