We are a special people and we need special exemptions, yes?
Our posts on de-cluttering seem to have hit a nerve, judging by the amount of feedback we’ve had, on the blog, on social media and on the street. We’re really happy if we’ve helped anyone at all streamline their lives a bit. But one protest, or exception, or question which comes up a lot is, “What about my [specialized materials] for my [craft, hobby, preparedness lifestyle]?”
I figure anyone who reads this blog–anyone who is more of a producer than a consumer–will have collected tools and materials for production. These tools and materials don’t fit neatly into the KonMari scheme. The KonMari method, as well as other types of de-cluttering programs, including techno-minimalism, seem to assume our homes are places where we simply relax, surrounded by our well-pruned and curated items.
In a DIY household, there is always something messy going on. For us, relaxation is tinkering and making and cooking and repairing, not reclining on our immaculate sofa, quietly tapping on our iPad.
And while we’re aware that other people might accumulate random, useless consumer toys and frippery, we are confident that we don’t…er…mostly. Or if we have, those sorts of things are easy enough to part with. Our weakness lies elsewhere. We accumulate tools and supplies–more than we need– and we hang on to these things, just in case.
Creative people seem to have two kinds of production. There’s the work they actually do, the kind with tangible results, and then there’s the work they think they might do sometime in the future. Imaginary work. Theoretical work. They have tools and materials they actually use regularly, and then they have other tools they keep around...just in case.
Just in Case
Three dangerous little words, Just in Case. Dangerous because they are slippery. Just in case of what? Just in case when?
Just in case is a clause which stretches to the end of time, or more realistically, to the end of you. At which point your heirs will heave all your just in case into the nearest dumpster while muttering about what a pack rat you were.
Just in case can be apocalyptic thinking (“This will be valuable when the oil runs out.”). It is also that tiny persistent voice in any creative person’s head which says, “I could make something with that..someday.” It’s also the nagging voice is the frugal person’s head which says, “Better hold on to that. If I don’t need it, someone will.”
Just in case is not a useful category in which to place any belonging. Get rid of this category as an excuse for keeping junk around. We can be producers without being hoarders.
It’s real, useful and secure only when it is in your hand or under your eye
The problem with accumulating materials and supplies which we are not using immediately is that we lose track of these things. We forget where they are. We forget we have them at all. How useful are these things at that point?
The truth is, if you don’t know where it is, can’t get to it because it’s buried somewhere, or have forgotten it altogether, it functionally doesn’t exist anymore. You’ve lost it. You lost it long ago. All you’re holding onto is a spacial and psychic burden.
Also, as someone who suffered a moth infestation this summer (and ended up handpicking moth larvae out of a wool carpet, thankyouverymuch toxin-free lifestyle), even if you don’t quite forget what you have, the processes of entropy have a way of taking care of unused things.
I think Nature does not like unused things, and sends rust and mice and insects and mold and flood waters after them, in an attempt to return them to a more useful state– useful to Nature, that is, not you. Nature doesn’t care about your anxieties and abandoned projects and unrealized plans.
And if I can’t convince you by appealing to Reason or Nature, I’ll invoke KonMari, the pixie dominatrix. She does not want you to have anything in your house which you do not use and love, and that includes tools and supplies for your various endeavors.
You can be practical, creative and yet streamlined
I tell myself this.
It’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime. And honestly, I’m in this boat with you, so I don’t have all the answers. All I have are working ideas, as follows:
#1 Project driven accumulation, with deadlines.
This is a simple behavior adjustment, but one which will be difficult for many of us.
No more picking something up out off the street or at the thrift store or off the beach just because you think you might make something with it someday.
No more buying yarn or fabric or paper because it’s pretty. Or a good buy. No more buying tools because they’re so very tempting. This is putting the cart before the horse.
This is the new law: First you think of a project. Then you commit to it. Then you give yourself a deadline. Then, and only then, can you begin to accumulate materials for that project.
Project Idea -> Commitment -> Deadline -> Materials Hunt
Trust that you’ll find the materials you need when you need them. The world is bursting with stuff. It’s on the sidewalk, it’s on Craigslist and Freecycle. You can put out a call on your social networks for help. You don’t need to keep supplies squirreled away in your house, as if the world is short on egg cartons and empty jars and scrap wood.
If you happen upon some wildly exciting find, something you’ve not planned for– a steel tank, a piece of burl wood, the most amazing yarn—and it’s really, truly amazing, then fine, pick it up if you must. I’m not going to stand in the way of your creative destiny like some evil troll.
But when you pick it up, at that time commit to a project and a deadline. You can’t just drag it home and hoard it away because it “has possibilities.” If you hoard it away you are killing its possibilities.
Hoarding materials may kill your own possibilities, too. If we have piles of never-started or unfinished projects collecting dust on the shelves of our workshops (or in the back of the closet, or under the bed), it’s confusing, and guilt inducing, and makes you want to avoid your workspace. I really like the idea of deadlines which produce results. It feels good to have a finished project in hand.
It would also be nice to have projects done when they need to be done. Jam made when the fruit is ripe. Christmas gifts finished before Thanksgiving. That cob oven built in time for the summer party season. Imagine.
#2 Let go of old interests
Creative people are curious people. We go through a lot of creative phases. And in each phase, we accumulate equipment and supplies specific to that phase. Once we go onto a new thing, we often don’t return to our old thing.
Sometimes a phase doesn’t even get off the ground. You end up holding onto a tool or an instrument or supplies or a kit that you bought because of an impulse that never took root.
Either way, we accumulate a lot of stuff which we are not using and most likely will never use again. We like to keep these things because we think we might want to go back to them someday, but we should remember that there will always be some new craft or skill or activity to intrigue us. That is our nature.
It’s rather like books. We keep books because we think we might want to re-read them some day, but in truth there are very few books we love enough to re-read. The others just weight down the shelf–mostly because we are distracted by all the new books. (Shiny new books! Shiny new crafts!)
If you look back on your creative history, I’ll bet you’ll find that you’ve rarely returned to an older interest–or conversely, you have a steady core interest which takes up most of your creative energy.
I believe there are two basic types of creative people. There are those who commit to a skill and practice it the rest of their lives. I call those people the Masters. And then there’s the rest of us, those of us who love learning new things and who are always changing interests. I call us the Dabblers. (Fondly)
Masters might accumulate too much stuff around their center of interest, and need to prune a bit, but Dabblers have it much worse. The strata of our former interests fill our closets and garages. It’s hard to let go of these old materials, but it’s vital to do so, to make room for new ones to come in.
The more room you have for your current passion, the more room you have to spread out and really express yourself. Imagine clean cupboards. Imagine organized, easily accessed tools. Image open workspace for the taking. It doesn’t have to be a dream. You just have to let go of the past.
But what if…?
Dabblers don’t go back to old hobbies very often, but it does happen sometimes. Erik went back to fencing. I’m giving sewing another go after a stab at it in the 90’s. In all of our history of creative activity and random hobbies (and it has been an epic history, believe me) these are the only exceptions.
I say be fearless with your old craft/hobby items. Give them to someone who will use them today. Remember Nature and Entropy. Paints dry up. Leather rots. Silverfish nibble at paper. Sporting gear gets outdated or outgrown. You can’t keep it forever and you can’t take it with you.
If someday you do find your heart leading you back to an old interest, have faith that you’ll be able to get the stuff you need when you need it. Trust the universe that much.
After all, it’s not the end of the world if you have to buy a few things to get going again. You’ll be much savvier the second time around regarding what things you really need, and you’ll know where to get them for the best prices.
#3 Keep the supplies for your reoccurring activities lean and in shape
In contrast to hobbies we leave behind, there are sets of activities which we do regularly if not constantly, and which require their own tool set. Canning equipment. Baking supplies. Brewing equipment. Soap making bowls and molds. Woodshop tools. Gardening supplies. Sewing and knitting stuff.
All this stuff is wonderful, but it takes up space. There’s no getting around that basic fact, but we can be more disciplined about keeping those supplies trim and tidy.
Speaking from experience, I know I don’t need a hundred canning jars on hand at all time, much less their dented and rusty rings to be able to preserve food a couple of times a year. You might not really need that bin full of fabric scraps. But somehow this stuff does accumulate. Thin it out.
Also, as we develop experience with any skill, we tend to find tools and techniques which work best for us, and we drop tools and techniques which don’t fit our style or our needs. But we don’t get rid of the unused tools. We’ve still got the less-useful size of that thingamajig, or that other thingamabob which is almost right, but not quite, so you don’t really use it but you keep it around…just in case.
There’s no need to keep the extra baggage around.
Here’s an easy example. Say you love to bake cookies, but if you look at what you bake, you realize that 95% of the time you make drop and bar cookies. Do you really need that fancy cookie press and all its fittings, which is taking up half a kitchen drawer? Or that rossette iron which you used once, five years ago?
Trim your equipment to the most loved and the most used. You’ll find you can very well do without the excess stock.
Should you ever regret getting rid of something you had, because suddenly you realize you could use it for a certain project, trust that you can either do without it– suck it up and work around the problem–or borrow it, or find it in a thrift store.
In other words, someone else has a cookie press cluttering up their kitchen drawer. It doesn’t have to be you.
#4 Streamlined Emergency Preparedness
Of course it’s okay to accumulate in this category. It’s necessary to accumulate in this category. However, I think it’s important to keep this category streamlined and active, just like everything else. Know what you have and how it will be used, love it, and use it regularly.
As with any other sort of supply, if you don’t know what you’ve got, or can’t find it, you may as well not have it.
You don’t want to wait until the emergency to find out what you have–and you will likely not be in the mood to sort through all sorts of random stuff that you jammed in the emergency supply bin just because you didn’t know what else to do with it. Nor will you want to discover your canned good are all expired, or that your camp stove doesn’t work.
Don’t let your emergency supplies gather dust in bins. Instead, integrate them with your daily life.
Keep a stocked, rotating pantry full of dried goods for day to day cooking and expand the quantities so that you have enough for an emergency. (Personally, I think that, at minimum, any sensible household should be able to hole up for a week without power or water.)
Your family will be more comfortable eating familiar foods like tuna, peanut butter, soup, grains and beans and home-canned goods during an emergency than they would eating weird emergency rations. You won’t have to worry about expiry dates, because you’ll using these pantry basics constantly and replacing them as you go. Don’t forget to stock up for your pets, too.
Make your emergency preparedness first-aid kit your everyday first aid kit, so you know it’s all fresh and you know what’s in it. Keep extras of your necessary medications on hand too.
The bright side of this stocking up is that you should never run out of anything, meaning no emergency trips to the store for cat food or toilet paper.
Hold “Olde Tyme Nights” where you unplug everything and pretend you don’t have electricity or gas. Or the Internet. It’s fun, and it will give you a good idea of what kind of equipment you need to be comfortable, how much light you’ll need and where, how you’ll keep busy and warm, and most importantly, how you’re going to cook. Try it in the winter and in the summer, to note seasonal variables.
On these nights, play with using what you already have, rather than buying specialty supplies. Are your decorative candles and oil lamps in the house bright enough and safe enough to use for emergency lighting? Can you improve that? What about cooking? If you ordinarily grill a lot, play with that. Can you make non-standard things on your grill, like oatmeal and coffee? If not, how are you going to boil water?
If you camp, all your camping equipment can perform double duty in emergencies. I can’t recommend camping enough as the best form of emergency preparedness.
Water is essential, and it’s also incredibly awkward and inconvenient to store. There’s no getting around it, though, you’ve got to find a place to keep it We keep ours in BPA free, rectangular 20 gallon containers. Right now those containers are in my office/studio, which I don’t like, but right now are the only place they can go. I’ll like them much more after the Big One hits.
There are other scenarios that you may want to prepare for–everything from having bug-out bags to plans for complete societal collapse. All the same rules apply. Keep your supplies lean but sufficient, and use them.
Remember always that preparedness is mostly an inner quality. It’s in what you know, what you can improvise on the fly, and most importantly, your attitude. Preparedness is not in the stuff you accumulate.
Whew! This has been an novel of a post, what they call a “long-read” in this post-literate age. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for spending so much of your day with me. I’m really interested in this problem of living like a producer, but not becoming a horder. If you’ve got any ideas or input, please do let me know!