Since the start of this blog in January I have shared with you the story of my stuff, what I collected, how I shipped it around the world with me, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way – mostly motivations to downsize the clutter and the costs and the emotional toll. From here on, the blog moves into its more intended purpose, reflecting on different elements of minimalism, decluttering, hoarding, travelling with stuff and finding a life more balanced and true.
The first such topic is what I call my inventory list.
I have always been a list person. Way beyond the shopping and to-do list, I have made all kinds of lists: films-to-watch and books-to-read lists, things to do before I am 30, things I need to buy when I set up in a new country, my hard drive contains a bunch of them. But the longest one of all is my inventory list.
Originally it was created to identify where my stuff was. Moved out of Australia, my first job was split between three countries in Europe and generally my employers didn’t like me bringing loads of stuff back and forth, so things got taken to one country and often left there for later. So I found myself starting a list of what stuff was where – in Australia or Europe. And even left behind with friends in the UK. This was around the time that laptops were becoming smaller and lighter but still around 3-5kg. So my lists were notes on paper. Lots of paper. Carried with me to each new country.
Years later in another job I noticed with curiosity the assistant wandering my house one day, a furnished apartment supplied by my employers as part of my job, taking pictures of everything. It was for insurance, and she was cataloguing everything with great care so that if ever a claim was made, they had the exact details and pictures of what had been lost or damaged. Hmmm. My brain exploded with possibility. Maybe that’s something I should do too – with my stuff everywhere and being shipped all over the place, surely it was a wise move?
Lo and behold my lists became one smart list, an insurance list. On it I listed as much as possible: the item, its brand, the year and location purchased, the cost in whatever currency, and in 2007, as I began my first efforts of decluttering properly, I also started taking pictures of what I had.
Completing the list was, while quite worthwhile in the long run, painstaking, time-consuming work. When my job finished a year later and I sent almost everything from overseas back to Australia, I sat back home in a rented apartment surrounded by my stuff, everything from storage and overseas unpacked and spread out across the living room and hallway in neat, carefully arranged piles. With my visiting best friend, I went through box after box after suitcase and bag of things, taking stock of what I had. Sometimes throwing out, but more often, reorganising things into a better system for the storage unit. I was bound back overseas after all. My life was there.
While I packed lighter than I had the first time back in 2002, I still packed a lot. The rest was bound for storage once more. Unfinished, boxed, bagged, cluttered, hurried. My last day at home was a memorable and tearful rush, as I arrived at the storage facility just on closing time in a friend’s borrowed station wagon filled to the brim and a taxi behind me filled with even more. With the help of the facility’s kind receptionist (who had known me over many years of loyalty), I loaded everything back in, until long after closing time it was finally done and my unit was stacked full once more. I hate that I never seem to make a dent in the volume of storage, as hard as I work to sort it out.
My inventory list has proved its worth time and again following these sorts of rush periods. When under the pressures of time, you stop noticing things and stress clouds your eyes, ears and mind. I have returned to my list so many times, to see what went where, where I put it, until I learned by heart how many boxes I had and what typically each contained.
One day I returned to Australia to study at university. I lived in share-houses mostly, but for a while in my own apartment. Again, my need to document my new items for living became my hobby outside study. Photographed and listed, now categorised into areas like ‘kitchen’ or ‘laundry’, it became easy to refer to what I had. Things were messy however, because I still had my storage unit interstate and luggage still left in London with friends. And, I had been purging for a good couple of years as well – so some things on my list were now long gone. But I couldn’t remember for sure because maybe it was still interstate or overseas.
Eventually almost all of my things, save for 4 boxes, were with me in Melbourne. In and out of storage, university now behind me and living through my troubled year post-degree, I sat one weekend in a share house when my housemates were gone and went through all those old papers, 12 year old lists, and reconciled them into my master inventory. Determined to just have one complete list. There was so much joy in getting rid of those papers, the weight that came with those papers, of what I had; seven years into my decluttering journey, only just discovering minimalism and the ideas of living more free. It wasn’t until a few months later when I had relocated back overseas that I sat with my open tablet one day, looking at and reviewing my list, matching some recent notes about the boxes with my grand list, that I realised I had just about documented each thing I had, or pile I had, for example papers, and I finally felt complete. Nothing on there that was gone. Everything that remained.
I cannot deny that its existence has been helpful. Referred to more than any single document I own. The pictures sit in the same folder, and I can view them to check something or recall what was in a given box. When I got robbed, having all the details of things was fantastically helpful. I gave pictures of missing jewellery and of the electronic serial numbers and the computers to police. Sadly, being just three weeks out of travelling I hadn’t yet set up my renters insurance again, so without insurance everything was gone forever, irreplaceable. It was a lesson in itself. Yet I was grateful for that list then. I can sit anywhere life takes me, even now on the other side of the planet, and look through what I have and clearly plan for my big declutter purge due on my next holiday home, and know exactly what can be thrown or kept. I can see what books I have that I can buy and read electronically and do away with the copy at home. Same for TV and movies. There is a lot of use in this grand list, for my particular style of life.
But I also admit that the time taken to create it – and the mental compulsion and obsession with the list and creating lists in general – are major downsides that have prevented me from living some more social parts of life and caused me now to question such habits. Where are these OCD tendencies coming from, what is driving them? For each moment I spent making the list, why wasn’t I questioning the worth of the item? Why wasn’t I downsizing? Maybe because I wasn’t ready. Nine years of my life have been spent on this journey to finally reach a point of comfortably accepting minimalism and what that looks like for me. Six of those years were caught up in study and poverty and a genuine need for those things. I had different values then and no luxury of being able to do away or replace things as I desired. I lived through all my just in cases.
Now I am working full time, double full time even, in the Middle East to paint a new picture of my future life. The list is once again revealing its value in helping me plan for purging. But you know? I don’t keep as many lists anymore. My values on that have changed. Life is too short to keep stock of books I should read or films I should watch. Just do it. Or don’t and forget about it. Things outdate so easily, films from old lists aren’t even interesting anymore, the appeal is lost. Books can be found in a library.
I have released myself from the clutches of the past. I embrace nostalgia but no longer choose to dwell on it. People grow, tastes change. I have noticed I am not the same person I was pre-university. I’ve moved on. I’m interested in different things, newer or other things.
How much do I value my list? Probably not as much as I once did. Like Joshua Fields-Millburn says, it’s about being able to walk away from things, to not put value or strong attachments on anything so much that it becomes irreplaceable. I do love some things more than others, but I’ve reached that same point as Joshua. They are just things, and the memories are in your head. The same things will have no value for the next person. Keeping things in storage so long releases me of much of my attachments. This helps in my planning for downsize. Do I need a list for insurance anymore? No, because for me I hope with savings kept aside I can replace anything that’s lost. That’s way more cost efficient for me personally living out of a suitcase, to just replace rather than pay for unnecessary insurance.
One day, I’ll delete my list. Because there just won’t be a need. And all my stuff will be with me once more. Each thing will have a purpose or joy – and that will be enough.