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TACTIC: You can ask me questions about this ebook.

Send email to me at john@december.com with the subject line Keep Simplifying. I cannot guarantee you a custom response, but I will answer questions I can here on this page. If you have your own tactic for living simply, see the forum. I'll list here the most recent question and answer first.

What About Heirlooms?

Question: I am enjoying your ebook Keep Simplifying but I have one question that has held me up on getting rid of "stuff" and simplifying my life. In 1976 my father was killed in an auto accident, I was 11. He didn't have much and over the years much of what he did have has either been stolen or lost. What I have left of his stuff I consider heirlooms (his banjo, some books, tools, notebooks of his writings, etc). Enough stuff to fill two large steamer trunks with an exception of a few things which don't fit in the trunks. To add to this I have another trunk full of childhood stuff and a mother who continues to give me items handed down from grandmothers and great grandmothers. I love and treasure the items but I'm not sure how I can simplify when this collection of artifacts continues to grow making it difficult to simplify in a time in my life when I need it the most.

Do you have any ideas which can help me to sort through it all. How do you get rid of things which are unique, important, but hold no particular use or function except sentimental value and connection to one's past.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Thanks and cheers!
-- Carl

Answer: I'm thinking that perhaps a local history museum might be interested in the items. Ideally, they would accept them and properly preserve and display them for many other people to enjoy--and you could visit the museum when you want to see the items. I would take high-resolution digital photos of all the items, and scan and digitally store the notebook pages before you donate them, so at least you would have the pictures of the items to display if you wish to remember them.

If a local history museum would not want the items, I would check with any other living relative or close friend who might like the items. Then, if you still can't find a good home for the items, I might keep only a very few things, make sure I have digital photos of the items and scan the writings, and then sell them or give them away.

In brief, I would avoid being too sentimental over objects, no matter how old and how many times handed down. People and memories and the present matter more. Stuff that is dragging you down prevents you from creating vibrant, new memories and moments.

Why $16.70?

Question: I have been reading your e-book on simplicity. FANTASTIC! But I must ask how you arrived at the amount of money ($16.70) to carry in your urban kit. Whats the story?? Thanks in advance.
-- A. Greenspan

Answer: Thank you for your note. The amount gives some singles and change. Requires a $5 bill (or 5 ones) plus another $1 and a $10. Plus likely two quarters and two dimes, for pay phones or storage lockers, bus change, or a cab fare. Likely, I'd carry an extra $20 or other money in my pocket also, but this combo gives me a stash of smaller bills and coins to make sure I have odd change for sometime when I need it.

What to do with Structure?

Question: I wanted to thank you for writing your book and for making it available online. Iíve been struggling with the idea of simplicity and owning less for about six months now, but Iíve had a hard time transferring ideas into reality. Your advice really helped. I found your writing a few days ago, read through it all, and started applying the dejunking section to my apartment. Iíve only done the top of my desk Ė itís a tall desk, though Ė and I already feel so much better. I like seeing the open space, having everything organized and knowing that I donít need all that much.

However, I did disagree with your idea of getting rid of structures. This could be because of my career, though. Iím a writer/journalist, and so a place doesnít feel like home without a cherished desk, a proper filing cabinet and a bookshelf. Iím assuming you suggested avoiding furniture for those in small spaces or for those who are constantly on the go. Do you have any thoughts there?

Thanks again, and all best,
-- M. in Arizona

Answer: Thanks for your note. The intent of the tactic, "Rethink your choice of owning structures that hold items," is to examine what you have and then reconsider. So if something is working for you, I can definitely understand that you would want to keep it, and I would. I've applied this to my life, and the biggest piece of furniture I own is one desk (no drawers, actually a sturdy table) which can be taken apart and moved flat. (My bed is a futon mattress on the floor--the frame broke years ago, and I've not replaced it!) For people moving often, look at compact or easy-to-move desks or shelves. The key is to look at the item and see how easy it could be eliminated. A large, heavy dresser could be easily replaced by some lightweight plastic crates placed in the closet.

The parts of your question that I would examine further are in your statement, "a place doesnít feel like home without a cherished desk, a proper filing cabinet and a bookshelf."

  1. Filing cabinet: as a writer, you have drafts, notes, manuscripts, and records. If you haven't done it already, a good idea is to scan all your papers to computer files and store the digital copies off site, such as to an online backup service or in safe deposit box. Even if you keep your paper system, you'll want to make sure you can't lose these notes and manuscripts. I've earned my living as a writer for years, and I have 0 paper copies of anything. All my notes, drafts, contracts, and records are digital and backed up on disks at a safe deposit box plus at an online backup service. I have no filing cabinet. All my material is generated on a computer, and I've edited manuscripts electronically only.
  2. Bookshelf: I love books, but for the most part, I donate the ones I don't need anymore to the library. I then use the library to borrow the books I need and enjoy, and I use the library often. I use ebooks whenever possible.
  3. Home feeling: I agree that a place should feel like home, but I like to think less in terms of the material objects than the feelings, activity, people, comfort, and ideas that are associated with home. I have stepped away from my home looking like a furniture showroom with heavy or expensive objects arrayed all around. I look at those displays in department stores, and they look to me like traps.

How Can You Find Your Dream?

Question: I discovered your Keep Simplifying ebook, and in general can say that I'm very impressed with what you've put into it. Before I found it, I went through a process of getting rid of junk. I'm 18, and through most of my childhood, I was very much a pack-rat, never throwing anything away. My recent cleanup of my room alone netted some 12 bags of stuff to throw away, and numerous gifts for family.

I wanted to ask, though, for your advice on finding and living your dream. This area of my life is definitely NOT simple at this point! At this stage in life, my wants and dreams are an absolute morass, and it's hard to decide what is mine, what I've been conditioned to think that I want, or even if I've found anything of meaning or value yet. About the best that I can come up with is that I'd like a position of responsibility and leadership, where I nearly give up myself for something much more important and lasting. Besides contemplation, can you suggest any other ways of finding one's dream?

Thank you and regards,
-- Michael

Answer: I've found that my life goals have arisen from activities in areas that I enjoy and would do if I had to or not. Here are some tactics that you might use to explore your interests:

  • Get an internship or volunteer in an organization or company that does something that interests you.
  • Take classes outside your area of academic specialization, particularly short-term community and adult education classes that are not for academic credit, are short-term, and don't cost very much.
  • Interview people in the field who are working in areas that interest you.
  • Look to your hobbies and things that you enjoy doing--are there conventions, tradeshows, or other gatherings of people with similar interests?
  • Travel to a city that interests you.
  • Visit a museum or art gallery and note which displays or things draw your attention and contemplate why.
Best wishes!

Attitudes about Stuff

Question: Just wanted to say I just discovered your site and I love it. I retired 7 years ago and have, since then, cleaned our every spot in my house. I must have gotten rid of tons of stuff. The only problem is my husband. He has tried and has parted with a few things, but he can't get rid of lots of stuff. I really believe that it is just something in our minds that make us want to purge or horde. I did find out that the more I got rid of the braver I became, now I can part with almost anything (except pictures, and I am working on scanning the ones I want) I could talk all day because this is now my favorite subject. Keep up the good work.

--Diane in Corona, CA

Answer: Hi -- thanks for your note. I'm glad to hear about your simplification work.

Your husband may be identifying very closely with some of his things as part of his identity. For example, if he sees himself as a Mr Fixit, he likely has a large collection of lumber, tools, parts, scrap metal, pipes, etc., that he might need someday. If he can get rid of stuff he has not used in the past year and see that he can easily obtain something he needs from freecycle or a junkyard, dumpster, rental place (for tools and equipment), store, or friend (and see this skill in obtaining what he needs when he needs it as a positive skill to have), then he might cut down. (This is just an example of course, as I don't know what he collects.)

The key is that he need only get rid of stuff he truly does not need--he should keep what he needs. If you are telling him simply "you have to cut down," he is thinking of his treasures that he does not want to part with, and then he therefore mules up, and doesn't want to have any part of reducing stuff. If he can see his own choice in the matter and the benefits and joys of having less stuff--and the skills requisite for having less stuff--he may pare down.

The other aspect is seeing stuff as too closely tied to success or accomplishment. Is the goal in life to accumulate the most number of boats, jetskis, houses, furniture, books, tvs, antiques, dishes, clothing, computers, yard equipment, or collectibles? I think it helps to re-define the outward marks of success, perhaps by seeing non-material things like relationships, faith, experience, travel, independence, health, etc, as the most valuable, treasured aspects of life. The benefit of having far fewer material things is that you can have independence, time, space, and the mental ability to focus on the non-material and the experience of life itself.

Pictures and Slides

Question: I have been fanatically clean sweeping all my stuff... I have always treasured my photos and slides, and they are truly my greatest material possessions... I have a couple binders full of negatives for my photos... I really have wanted to get rid of these for years... What to do?

-- M. in Canada

Answer: I understand about photos and the value they have. I am not familiar with a scanning process for slides, but for prints I approached this same issue by doing a good quality scan of all of my photos (this was years ago with only a modestly-priced scanner). I kept just one (small) binder of the most treasured photos, and then I threw all the others away. It was hard to tear up and throw away those photos, but I know I have the digital scans, and could get a print of any one of them if I want, and I actually never have since as I look at photos on my computer, and all the photos I take are digital in form from the start.

There are good quality scanners now capable of a high-quality scan that will give you a very good print. Perhaps there is a service that will digitally scan all your photos or slides or you could rent a scanner or use one at an office services store. For digital storage, I suggest looking at mozy.com for backups of all your files. I've been trying mozy.com out for a couple of months, and it works excellent. A digital scan of your treasured photos or slides, backedup securely online, is far, far better than just a paper print or slide that can be lost or damaged. Think of it that way--you are not losing your photos or slides but preserving them (even for future generations) in digital form.

So, in brief: I suggest going digital with photos and slides. If you want, keep one, small set of photos or slides that fit in one (relatively small) binder or folder.

A Handful of Handbills

Question: I was on your Web site and I was reading the part about the handbills. I am wondering what I can do now. I have a sign on my door that says "NO HANDBILLS" and I keep getting handbills from one company in particular. I have contacted them several times asking them not to leave them at my door and they keep doing it telling me "it's just a piece of paper" or "the kids we hire can't read." Is there ANYTHING else I can do? It's driving me nuts. I get this handbill about once a week and I'm feeling like they just won't leave me alone. I also go out of town frequently and I don't like having a bunch of handbills left on my door announcing that I am not home. Any advice helps.

Thank you,
-- Mara

Answer: I share your frustration. I dislike all unsolicited handbills as they clutter up doorways, quickly become litter, and announce to the world that you are out of town. But what to do? I honestly don't know. I'm not a lawyer, but as far as I know, if the handbill people are not doing anything illegal, they can keep at it, despite the disregard it shows toward potential customers. A respectful businessperson would at least emphasize to its people to avoid placing handbills where there is a "NO HANDBILLS" sign. Perhaps you can call your city or county government to see if there is some ordinance against leaving handbills without permission. The idea that is legal for any stranger to walk onto your property and leave anything there is somewhat disturbing, but it is a fact of life. The only remedy would be to have a neighbor at least grab the handbills from your door or porch to alleviate the announcement that you are out of town.

The Simple Life: Country or City?

Question: Your assumption that urban living is the best does not allow for those of us who simply cannot live in cities as they find them claustrophobic. What advice can you give to those of us who need to live in the country in order to maintain our sanity?

-- Louise

Answer: I understand a bit about the appeal of country living versus urban living--I grew up in a rural area, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and have some appreciation of what it is like. We had a weekend cottage (called a "camp" in the UP) outside of town which had a woodstove, gas lights, and no electricity, phone, or indoor plumbing (with an outhouse of course!).

I think the biggest issue of living outside of the city is transportation for employment, supplies, and things to do. A key tactic to approach this issue would be to establish a home office for telecommuting for work. Second would be a willingness to drive into the next town for groceries and needed services. It would be good to develop ways to figure out your needed supplies and stock up in advance to reduce trips. Stocking up would also prepare you in the event of being snowed in (depending on climate) and not being able to get out. The key would be to have a well-maintained and reliable vehicle and a very carefully planned shopping and errand day.

Other issues about country living have to do with the complexity of daily life. Now, I don't think by country living you mean necessarily living in a cabin without electricity or indoor plumbing, but getting needed things in the countryside or even suburbs seems to me more complex and less efficient than in a city. I find that country living is isolating (not dull--I can enjoy reading or even quietly watching the landscape), but the total automobile dependency required by country/suburban living makes me terribly uncomfortable.

Walk Score In evaluating a place to live, see how many nearby places you can walk with walkscore.com. This site gives you a quick overview of how many places you can walk from a particular address. This site itself admits its limitations, and you'll need to further weight the places it comes up with based on your own valuation of them. However, this site is a very good way to quickly get a dramatic sense of how where you live impacts where you can walk.

In contrast, I feel so free by living without a car in an urban environment where I can access a very wide range of goods and services by being out and about and walking--not having to get into the car for every trip. I did the optimize place set of tactics very carefully so that within walking distance of where I live*, I have: three very good grocery stores and several other alternates, walking and bicycling paths that take me along a lake and river, two public library branches, ten county parks, one state park, one Great Lake, many coffee shops including excellent independents (and seven Starbucks), two branches of my bank, a great bakery, hardware stores, probably over 100 restaurants, four college campuses including one of my alma maters, a downtown shopping arcade, churches, movie theaters, live performance theaters, shops for office supplies, printing and package shipping services, discount drug/general stores (three Walgreen's for example), two post offices, bus and trolley stops, historic districts and buildings, medical services, dental services including a dental school, the bus station, the Amtrak station, new and used book stores, four art museums, other museums, hotels, the convention center, festival grounds (site of multiple summer festivals), several sports arenas/performing arts centers, a public market, probably a half dozen health clubs (none of which I need because I walk everywhere), and government offices and services at the federal, state, county, and city level.

For mental relaxation, I find natural features including a riverwalk, the lakefront, and even the view from the roof of my apartment building show beauty that to me is as rewarding as the countryside, and even more so since I can walk to it and enjoy it every day in changing seasons and weather without ever having to get in a car to get there. And I use public transit to get around the rest of the city, region, and the world from here. My bias is toward the urban environment precisely because I like having all these things within walking distance and a very good public transit system. I see a tremendous simplification by having them at hand, and I feel grounded knowing I can walk to them and happy that I do have to own a car. I also save a great deal of time, money, and hassle by not having a car.

I have nothing against country living, but I don't know of anywhere in the countryside where I could live without a car and have access to even required goods and services (basic food for example) by walking. I find it tragic that many small towns in the USA are not walkable at all, require an automobile for accessing many things, have very poor (or no) public transit systems, and are often designed to be very hostile to pedestrians. Ironically, many small-town people have attitudes that seem antagonistic toward and suspicious of anyone trying to walk anywhere. Most small towns have given themselves over to low-density, automobile-oriented sprawl (see, for example Asphalt Nation, How Cities Work, or Suburban Nation).

If you have not tried or contemplated city living, perhaps some negative experiences and negative stereotypes might be things to reconsider--see Get Urban!


* Most of the destinations I list here are within 2 km or 3 km away from my apartment, although sometimes I walk up to 4 km to 5 km to a destination. Walking is my main form of exercise, and I consider being able to walk to places essential to my physical and mental health.

Books

Question: Your recommendation to get rid of big furniture struck the biggest chord with me. Since approximately noon today, I began reorganizing my possessions. My mattress is now on the floor so I'm not tempted to use space beneath it for storage. My clothes are all either hanging or stacked in my closet because I took my dresser out.... I'm a seminary student and subsequently must keep a great many books on hand. Right now, I am spilling off of the campus bookshelf assigned to me. Do you have any suggestions for light, space-saving, easily accessible book storage?

-- A Reader in Illinois

Answer: I love books for many reasons and use them often, but my approach to books is always to avoid owning them.

  1. If possible, use books at the library or borrowed from the library. I know this may sound inconvenient, but a public or school library is likely to have far more and updated reference works than you could accumulate. Of course this may not be true for specialty reference or books required for your work. If your library doesn't have a book you need, you could donate the money to buy it, use it at the library, and the book could serve many other people.
  2. If you already have a computer, consider electronic or online books. If you have a professional specialty, see if you can get the important reference works regarding that speciality in electronic form (on a CD or as an ebook). I have an unabridged dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, all installed on my computer. If you don't have a laptop computer, you might find a handheld computer that is an ebook reader.
  3. If you already own a paper book and you want to reduce its bulk, you can turn it into digital files using a scanner. I did this with a business reference book I had. I had to cut the book's pages to put it in the scanner, so I then discarded the pages after I had it scanned. I prefer the electronic form.
  4. If you have to store physical books, plastic crates stacked over two or three high eventually do seem to sag, particularly for textbooks. Probably crates would work for paperbacks. For heavier books, you could consider purchasing sturdy metal shelves with adjustable heights.
  5. If you need to store books on a budget, the oldest trick in a college student's strategies is to create shelving for books with found materials. The classic shelving involves wooden planks and concrete blocks. You could use any rigid material for the horizontal shelves, but wooden planks are probably best, and any uniform-height item for the vertical part (for example, large juice cans). You might find materials for shelves or items to make shelves at dumpsters or a thrift store (e.g., Goodwill).

Procrastination

Question: I'm a Master's student. I read your e-book on living simple, its good, I too like things simple and straight forward. Well my problem is though I know and try to practice many of the things what you have said since past 3-4 years but one of the major problem with me is procrastination. I keep things delaying-delaying until they become urgent and then I've no time.

-- Waiting in Washington, DC

Answer: Procrastination may be a sign that your goals are unclear. For example, you might tell everyone that you want to be in graduate school or that you want a specific career, but you really don't want it. Think about what you really want for the future (your dream) and write that down on a small card. When you feel like procrastinating, look at that statement and think about how much you want to gain that goal. Write down specific things you can do to move toward that goal, and work on these tasks each day. You say you are a student at a University--check with your University's counseling center. They probably have advice about procrastination, as it is common among college students.

Clone of You?

Question: If I do everything in your Keep Simplifying ebook, will my life be simple, and will I be just like you?

Answer: No. You need to look at this ebook as a list of possible tactics to choose from. Look at the rationale for my tactics within each section and decide for yourself which ones are right for you. I doubt that the entire book would be right for anyone. I also hope everyone will not become just like me--my apartment would be too crowded.

Are You Simple?

Question: Do you practice what you preach?

Answer: Yes. I don't own a car or television set. I live in a studio apartment. I love where I live. I live close to what matters to me. I have minimal furniture. I have a shopping day. I keep my stuff organized. I pretty much do everything in this ebook, and that was my basis for writing it.

Other Simple Sources

Question: Hey, you know some of your suggestions are in other books and in other Web sites.

Answer: Yes. When I wrote this book, I did not read other simplicity books (except Walden by Thoreau) or Web sites before I started writing. After I finished the book manuscript completely, I then wrote the book proposal. In doing the proposal, I did a literature search and found many simplicity books and Web sites.

Some of my suggestions match those of others. This should come as no surprise. If you were to examine two tourist guide books to the city of Paris, you would not be surprised if both describe Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. I'm not surprised that some of my suggestions are also in some other previously published works.

However, my organization and specifics are unique. My suggestions differ from most simplicity books in this way: I advocate urban (rather than country) living; and I include preparedness, Internet technology, and an emphasis on focusing on your dream as a motivator. My structure based on specific tactics is also different than most of the voluntary simplicity books out there. Most other books are oriented toward household hints, or the philosophy of voluntary simplicity and actually contain very few specifics in the broad range of areas I cover: stuff, home, routine, dream, and resources.

Children

Question: You don't say much about children. Can my life be simple with kids?

Answer: Yes, I think your life can be simpler, but I admit my ebook is not very much oriented to coping with kids. I know that kids need to be fed and washed on a fairly regular basis and this requires a great deal of supplies and time. I think simplifying most things in your life (your place, your routine, your stuff) is important so that you can give your kids your time and attention.

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