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I Built an App that Made Me Throw Away Half My Stuff

To be clear, it was a good thing
February 17, 2019

Last month I threw away or donated fifteen maybe twenty bags of possessions, most of which I dragged across the country only a year ago, and I couldn't feel better about it.

The first goal I set for myself after leaving Google last month was to take care of the logistical tasks I'd allowed to pile up over the year. I was champing at the bit to start building but it's a rare thing to find yourself with a sudden surplus of uncommitted time and I wanted to make sure I seized that opportunity before re-burying myself in work. I knew I'd be spending a lot more time at home this year so I decided the highest priority chore to tackle was transforming my apartment into a space conducive to concentration and productive work.

A clean desk Beautifully organized workstation pointedly not mine

This, I quickly discovered, was easier planned than done. Maintaining an organized and tidy living space has never been a skill of mine, but I had another factor compounding the issue. A little over a year ago I was living in a three bedroom single family home in Newark, CA, filled to the brim with stuff. When I moved to Brooklyn I knew space was going to be an issue and attempted a pare down ahead of time. I started with the best of intentions, sorting every item into boxes and responsibly disposing of anything I could part with, but then all of a sudden the movers were coming in the morning and I was throwing everything in boxes with a promise to sort them on the other end and smuggling a set of old bedside tables out of my cul de sac at 3am to throw into a neighboring development's private dumpster (desperate times, measures). When I arrived in Brooklyn I never did do that promised organization and to make a long story short, for the last year (and probably for longer) I've been living with simply too much stuff.

A messy desk Ok it wasn't this bad, but it wasn't good

It turns out this has a paralyzing effect on tidying efforts. The most challenging aspect of tidying is never the picking up and moving items part, that part is simple and can be pleasantly meditative under the right conditions. Instead it's the mental work of deciding where each item belongs and the creeping anxiety that after all your time spent tidying your home still wont look as good as you want. When you have too much stuff you can stack, or knoll, or bin but you'll always end up having to reshuffle your things again and again, performing this mental work over and over, because there will always some items left piled up and homeless in a corner or in the back of a closet or on a counter. Eventually you stop trying to organize the piles because you know there isn't anywhere to put all the decompressed clutter once untangled.

Knolled tools No shade on knolling though

It's an easy trap to stumble into and judging by the virulance of Marie Kondo's netflix show I'm not the only one who has fallen into it and needed help finding a way out.

Luckily, Marie Kondo's series has some great advice on how to overcome this vicious cycle. In addition there are dozens of blogs, podcasts, and books centered around the idea of minimalism that are great for providing some inspiration to get started. I've always been particularly intrigued by the concept of the 100 Things Challenge, although it's admittedly too intense for me.

After doing some reading I settled on a game plan consisting of two rules that I felt I could stick to and that I hoped would leave me feeling less burdened by my possessions and more comfortable in my living space.

1. Become conscious of every item I own. Clutter zones provide places for unneeded things to hide. By taking account for each item you flush out a ton of low hanging fruit for trashing or donation. It also makes explicit the mental cost of keeping things. This step borrow's heavily from Marie Kondo's strategy of gathering like items together. It's surprisingly easy to be unaware of how much you actually own, which enables you to accumulate more. An accounting can make you feel secure letting redundant items go.

2. Assign every item I own to a place. You'll never truly be done tidying until every item you own has an assigned home where it belongs. You can try to tidy but if don't know where to put everything you'll just be spinning your wheels. On the other hand, once you've decided where each of your objects lives almost all the work of tidying is done forever! All that remains is to simply move everything to where it belongs. A stressful and mentally taxing job has become a simple matter of folding and placing. This is what Marie Kondo means when she says clean up once and never again.

And so, with those rules in mind, I set to work. I worked from room to room, marking down each item I owned and where it was stored in a Google doc. It was laborious and time consuming, but as I worked I grew increasinly confident I was on the right track. My uneasiness about my possessions was shrinking and my pile of items I now knew I could spare was growing.

My one complaint was that a plain Google doc wasn't an ideal way to store this information. I found myself imagining an interface that was structured around my two rules. Instead of scrolling up and down a multi page Google doc, I could tap up and down through a hierarchy of rooms, surfaces, and items. In classic minimalist style it would show me only the information I needed at any moment or I could switch to another view to see all my items at once. Updating items in the future would be as simple as tapping into a room and surface or performing a search instead of scanning through a long unstructured list manually.

So I built it! You can find it here: mythingsmap.com. It's quite simple to understand and use. You begin by entering the rooms you wish to organize, then within each room enter the surfaces you keep items on, and then within each surface enter your items. On each room, surface, and item you can store notes or tags and items can be marked as containers, allowing you to store futher items within them.

A screenshot of My Things Map

My hope is that it can be useful to as many people as possible, so I've made it 'pay what you want' and anyone can login and begin without restriction. This exercise is admittedly a lot of work upfront, but the good news is that in the weeks since I made my 'things map' I've managed to keep my apartment in an unprecedented state of orderliness without almost no effort. With fewer things to wrangle and an established place for everything it's simply a matter of moving a few objects from one place to another once or twice a day. On top of that there's a peace of mind benefit that comes from knowing I'm in control of my environment which I've been finding refreshing and empowering.

For those of you who are interested, here's where most of my item cuts came from:

- Old clothes: This one isn't surprising. I think everyone has some closet space devoted to clothes they don't wear but feel too guilty to toss.
- Blankets: I have a dog, so whenever I cycled a blanket out of active bed duty instead of throwing it away I used to demote it to dog blanket duty. I threw all the 'dog blankets' away, but don't worry I bought a dog bed to replace them, I'm not a monster.
- Extra towels, sheets, pillows and cases: It's easy to justify keeping these around for guests, but realistically my Brooklyn apartment isn't suited for hosting anyways. I kept one set just in case.
- Knick knacks: These can be tough, so take your time and only part with them when you're ready. I kept one box of small toys and trinkets from my past that I taped up and put into my closet, but to a lot of them I said thank you and goodbye.
- Tools: I'd inherited sets, recieved them as gifts, and bought one off tools for specific projects, and the end result was that I had the tool chest of a seasoned handyman. I carried them along with me all this time because I felt they were too valuable just to toss. In the end I kept one nice set and a cordless drill and donated the rest.

In the end I'm breathing easier, happy to have a project come out of it, and hopeful that it can help other people as well. If you want to reach out to ask any questions about MyThingsMap or let me know what you're throwing away this week, hit me up on Twitter!

Image credits to NeONBRAND, Raul Varzar, Cesar Carlevarino Aragon, and Oleksii Hlembotskyi on Unsplash

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