100 Thing Challenge

Portland Tribune Article: How Hard is it to Live with Less?

a photo of me and Raffi taken in the Sweet Pea by Jaime Valdez of the Portland Tribune A couple weeks ago I was interviewed by Peter Korn of the Portland Tribune. (My first feature in the Trib in April 2012 was called Home Tiny Home by Jason Vondersmith.)

I met Peter while tabling for the Breathe Building at Portland's Earth Day Festival and we got to talking about micro housing and downsizing. He told me he's been doing articles that address these topics and wanted to pick my brain. (You can also check out his recent article about whether people living small give up their cars.)

So we met up in a coffee shop for a chat. Peter also talked to my friends and fellow tiny house dwellers Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens and Dee Williams of Portland Alternative Dwellings. Today the article we were interviewed for came out in the Portland Tribune. It's called How Hard is it to Live with Less? Here's an excerpt:

Two hundred things seems about right for Lina Menard. The Northeast Portland tiny house resident has tried for a few years to live with less stuff. She teaches workshops in downsizing. She thinks living with fewer material possessions is not only responsible from an ecological point of view, but frees her to live a happier, more meaningful life.

And yes, her “200 things” has a little bit of cheat in it. She counts her jewelry box as one item, even though there are about 30 pieces of jewelry inside. Her bike counts as one, though it has paniers, a water bottle and lights that could be considered separate items. A truer count of her possessions, Menard says, would be more like 577. But that’s not the point.

Menard used to live in a nice, two-bedroom house before she took the 200 Things Challenge, her version of the “100 Thing Challenge,” inspired by Dave Bruno’s 2010 book about living a simple life with only 100 possessions. So she had stuff she had to lose. And getting rid of stuff, she says, is hard.

For example, there was her grandmother’s fur coat. Menard had worn it to high school dances and the coat was associated with all sorts of pleasant memories. Still, it had to go. So Menard discarded the coat in a way that would attach a new meaning to it. Research revealed that the Humane Society of the United States accepts fur coats to help in its wildlife rescue program, the fur comforting cubs of the same species.

“It seemed like an appropriate choice because it kind of sent the fur back where it should have been,” Menard says.

Most of us are surrounded by thousands of material possessions, only a few of which deliver pleasure, say academic researchers and downsizing experts such as Menard. In her Less is More workshop, Menard has encountered young couples intrigued by tiny house living as well as baby boomers transitioning from houses to apartments and lives with more travel.

So why is it so hard to downsize?

Portland is part of the problem. Yes, the city is a national center for the tiny house movement and as an adjunct, the

living-with-less ethic. But that means there’s also a lot of free stuff here.

“Especially in Portland, you don’t have to buy things to acquire a lot,” Menard says. “Learning to say no to free things is actually a challenge.”

On the other hand, the popularity of tiny houses and micro-apartments here, and the many communal efforts such as the city’s tool libraries, make Portland a leader in living with less. One lesson Menard says she’s learned is that an Oregon-style conscience can get in the way of downsizing.

“The process wasn’t so much about tearing myself away from possessions as it was trying to figure out a way for them to be somewhere else,” she says. “I was responsible for these things, and because of my environmental ethic, I didn’t want to throw things away unless they were truly garbage.”

Downsizing became an emotional process for Menard, and an analytical one. Throughout each day, before moving into her 121-square-foot tiny house, she was mentally prioritizing every object she owned. She was just 27, not old enough, she thought, to have accumulated much.

“But it was still amazing to me how many things I had that I had never intended to own and how few of them had meaning and how few of them had a story,” she says. She took photographs of objects that did have meaning but were still destined for a new location. Among the items that made her 200 things cut: the blanket she had as a child, a hammock from Costa Rica, her laptop and cell phone, one mattress, one pressure cooker, and a favorite teacup she had brought back from Prague.

What My 200 Things Challenge Taught Me

02 Lina & Stuff A package arrived in the mail yesterday and I added two new items to my possessions without adding them to my inventory. I haven’t been counting since my last inventory of my possessions, when I moved into my Home, Sweet Pea in August with 190 things. But receiving that package reminded me that I’ve learned a lot about my relationship with stuff since I embarked upon an adventure in radical downsizing two years ago.

I’ve found that My 200 Things Challenge has made me a better minimalist. I am less attached to my possessions, but more pleased with the things with which I surround myself. I am more likely to loan something out. I am less worried about wearing something out because there’s a new excitement about acquiring something new. I am more likely to decorate with fresh flowers or fall squash. I only wear clothing that I feel comfortable in. I own few possessions that I don’t use on a daily, weekly, or at least monthly basis. I don’t have to shuffle things around as much to get to the other things I need. I no longer own things that frustrate me because they are broken because I have repaired, replaced, or purged them. I am more particular about what I allow into my home, which means I no longer take something just because it was free. I am more likely to consider whether or not I really need something before I acquire it. I am more likely to get rid of something I’m waffling about. But most importantly, I give less attention to my stuff and more attention to my experiences. If this sounds good to you, please note that I will be teaching a workshop on downsizing and decluttering in Portland, OR in November and December. I encourage you to contact me if you'd like to sign up!

serving dinner for six in a tiny house

I had heard about the 100 Thing Challenge several months before my move to a 12 foot diameter yurt and I realized it was a whole different way of looking at what I owned. When I began my downsizing process the year before my focus was mostly on volume. As I shrunk my footprint from an 800 square foot 2-bedroom house to a tiny house on wheels called Bayside Bungalow, the question I kept asking myself was “Can I fit this into the tiny house?” I was amazed at how much I was able to fit into a tiny house on wheels. The house fit me and all my stuff because I lean on the density side of the Packing Lightly vs. Packing Densely scale. But it wasn't just stuff. I discovered the Tiny House Sleeps 5 Comfortably and I did plenty of Entertaining in the Tiny House.

So, when I first heard about it, the 100 Thing Challenge, like tiny homes themselves, seemed too radical for me. But, just as I started wondering what it would be like to live in a tiny house once I learned about Dee Williams and her little house, once I learned about A Guy Named Dave and his 100 Thing Challenge it captured my curiosity. I found myself wondering if this thing I was holding/using/fixing would be one of my 100 things. So I read more on Dave’s website and then read his book on my kindle. (My favorite part is when Dave talks about how we tend to own several of something and none of them are just right.) As I read up, I realized that Dave had crafted his own rules about how he would count his possessions and some of them seemed were pretty lax. For instance, although Dave limited himself to one really nice pen, he counted as just one thing his library. On the other hand, my friend and tiny house dweller Tammy Strobel counted her camera and its two lenses as three separate things on her list as she downsized to 72 Things! I realized I would be more willing to hold myself accountable if I made up my own rules, so I jotted them down in My Things Challenge: Who’s Counting Anyway?

Home Sweet Yurt

I moved into the yurt with 198 Things. Instead of just asking myself if something would fit the space, I started asking myself if it fit my life. Was it worth counting? There was a patch last winter when I was Taking Stock Without Stocking Up since my New Year’s Re-Inventory revealed that I had “slipped” to 214 things. I combed through my possessions and purged some things, dipping to 197 and then adding 6 more when I went in search of The Minimalists New Clothes. But since I couldn’t figure out what else to part with, I decided that it was okay to have 203 things. It was right around that time that I realized the number wasn’t so important. What was more important was that I’d gotten the intent of the challenge. I’d downsized till I just couldn’t figure out what else to get rid of. Then I lived with those items to see how it felt. When I did my inventory during a bout of Perfect Packing Weather in August I had just 190 things! So I ended My 200 Things Challenge with fewer things than I’d started it with, which I considered quite a good sign.

I’ve decided that for now I’m not going to track my possessions. I’ll devote that time and energy to other efforts. But I’m so glad I took on My 200 Things Challenge and I’m grateful for all it taught me.

Taking Stock Without Stocking Up

my new fuzzy slippers One of the things I could really relate with as I read The 100 Thing Challenge book (on my Kindle, of course!) was the chapter about how we often own many different items that serve similar purposes because none of the items is just right. As I was Inventorying & Packing Up my things because I was Downsizing from a Tiny House to a Tinier House, I got rid of several items that weren’t quite right, hoping to eventually replace them with things that were just right. I’ve done a bit of that replacing but I’ve also realized that some of the things weren’t actually necessary. It seems that sometimes promising myself that I can replace it lets me part with something that I really didn’t need.

After doing a New Years’ Re-Inventory I realized that I wanted to do some clothes shopping. But I also knew that I was 14 items over on My 200 Things Challenge. In addition, over the past month I was gifted a travel spice kit by my aunt the gourmet cook, two beautiful hand-painted tiny bowls from my 10 year old cousin, a hand-printed Old School Stationers letterpress calendar, and a flax seed pillow which is My New Favorite Thing. I also bought myself a pair of cozy slippers to deal with the fact that my floors are chilly when the temps drop below freezing, even after Weatherizing the Yurt. (REI had exactly one pair of the slippers I wanted - they just so happened to be my size and on clearance. My lucky day!)

So today I decided to do a little CPR (categorizing, purging, and reorganizing) on my stuff. Here’s what happened:

taking the not so big life digital
taking the not so big life digital
  • I realized that I prefer having photos cycle through on my desktop to having photo frames sitting around the house, so I was able to part with a couple of my decorations.
  • I checked the Kindle store to see if any of my books were available electronically. I decided to go for a digital version of The Not So Big Life since it’s mostly text and very few pictures. I’ll pass my copy along to some tiny house friends and they can pass it on from there. I decided not to digitize Sarah Suzanka’s Home by Design even though it is available in a digital format because I love the pictures!
  • I noticed that I hadn’t worn my slacks very much this winter so I’ve decided to put them into purgatory. If I don’t feel like digging them back out I might not keep them!
  • I put the white board that has been living on my fridge into purgatory, too, since I usually keep my grocery list in my phone. But I didn’t get rid of it since it’s nice to have a white board when sharing a house and I hope to share a home with someone beloved again someday.
  • I purged my two sweatshirts since I rarely wear them. I ditched two pairs of shoes that were never quite right for me. I decided to replace a couple skirts and a sweater that didn’t suit me with something I liked better. (See The Minimalist’s New Clothes for more about my clothes shopping guidelines.)

things I've decided to keep even though I don't use them every week

I also took a critical look at some things I don’t use much. I suppose I could go down to one cutting board, but it’s nice to have two when cooking with a friend. I don’t use my travel mug often since I’m not a coffee drinker, but sometimes it’s awfully nice being able to bring hot tea or cocoa with me. I don’t use my yoga mat at home since I do yoga at the gym at the university and they supply mats there, but I’d like to have it for when I’m done with school in a few months. I don’t swim very often, but having a swimsuit and goggles still seems like a good idea. So after all this I got myself down to 197 Things. I decided that was good enough. I headed out to find The Minimalist’s New Clothes.

My New Favorite Thing

My New Favorite Thing Glad I spent the weekend before last Weatherizing the Yurt. Yesterday it snowed a bit here in Portland. It was, of course, Portland-style snow: pretty little flakes that melt the second they hit the ground, no intention of sticking around. Portland snow is a little pathetic, but really charming. I enjoyed walking through it to the streetcar stop on my way to lunch at Nicholas, one of my favorite Portland restaurants. Nicholas is a Lebanese restaurant that serves spectacular food and I was glad to share a meal there with some dear family friends. They brought me a flax seed pillow as a gift and it is my new favorite thing.

Although I’m being careful not to adopt new things haphazardly because I’m a smidge over on My Things Challenge, this one is a great addition to my possessions. I plan to take an hour in the next couple of weeks to review My 200 Things List and pick which things to let go.

Anyhow, last night I heated up my flax seed pillow in the microwave for the first time and brought it to bed with me. As much as I’ve tried to convince Raffi to crawl down to the foot of my bed to be my foot warmer he won’t do it. He prefers to sleep in my arms with his head on the pillow, too. He thinks he’s a people and I haven’t corrected him. So I put my warm flax seed pillow under my down comforter at the foot of my bed and snuggled my feet underneath. It warmed them right up.

I've just gotten home from dinner with a friend and my flax seed pillow is heating my feet as I type. It’s so nice to have toasty warm feet as I drift off to sleep!

My 200 Things Challenge

A few months ago I decided to take on the 100 Thing Challenge during this school year, but once I decided to count both household and personal possessions, I knew my number would be bigger. As I finished Inventorying & Packing Up, I decided 200 was a good number. I’m currently at 198 things. Here is My 198 Things List.

a few totes stored in my friend's basement

I scratched my head for a while about how to count the things that I own but am not currently using and how to count the things that I’m currently using but don’t own. For instance, I own a house in Walla Walla that I’m renting partially furnished, so I'm well acquainted with the Joys of Home Ownership. I’m not living in my house right now, but it is mine. Meanwhile, I am living in a partially furnished yurt. I’ve decided to just count the things that I'm living with right now. I'll include the things I'm renting or borrowing on my list since they are in my possession. However, for the record, I do own a house and the furniture in it as well as four totes and a food dehydrator that are currently stored in my friend’s basement.

my sweet little bungalow rented out this year

I’ll admit that my loophole is that in some cases I counted a container rather than all the items it contains. For instance, if I’d counted every ring, earring, bracelet, and necklace in my jewelry box I would have had 34 things, but I counted my jewelry box as just one thing. I love jewelry because it’s a way to quickly change my look with pretty little details. Besides, most of my jewelry has a story: it was a gift from a friend, I inherited it from my grandmother, I found it in the night market in Chang Mai, etc. But tend to I think of my jewelry as a single thing, so I decided to count it that way. The trick, I’ve decided is to not overflow the handful of boxes I’ve allowed myself. (For the sake of honesty, I did actually inventory everything that I would have to purchase separately, so I have two counts. For instance, if my bike was stripped and I had to replace my water bottle, lights, helmet, rack, paniers, etc. it would be more than one thing. My true count is 577 things, but by my practical count it’s 198 things.)

So I plan to live this next year with 200 items or less. I’ll try to adopt the mantra from the Non-Consumer Advocate website: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Moving Day is Sunday so the challenge begins then. Here goes!

Inventorying & Packing Up

Since I knew I’d be moving twice this summer I figured the first move would give me a chance to do an inventory and the time in a new space would help me to evaluate what I really use. I’m now turning my attention to my second move, which means re-inventorying and beginning to pack up the things I won’t use in the next couple weeks. Since I’m Downsizing from a Tiny House to a Tinier House, I’ve got some tangible limits on what I’ll be able to bring with me. Here goes downsizing again! When I started My Things Challenge I initially planned to keep two separate lists of 100 things: personal items and household items. The guy named Dave who started the 100 Thing Challengeonly counted personal possessions among his 100 things. He counted his clothes, his car, his books, and his favorite pen, but he didn’t count any of the household items he shared with his partner and children. So, following in his footsteps, I was planning to keep a list of household items and separate list of personal possessions. (See my other rules at My Things Challenge: Who’s Counting Anyway?) But since I’m the only person in my household, I decided this week when I started inventorying that I’ll keep just one list. I’m curious to see what number I’ll pick, what my allowance will be. I've got a hunch I'll be picking a number higher than 100.

One hundred twenty-three things… and counting! (To find out what number I ended up with, click here.)

My Things Challenge: Who’s Counting Anyway?

me with the contents of my tiny house I first heard of the 100 Thing Challenge about a year ago. I was downsizing from a two-bedroom bungalow to a tiny house at the time, but the 100 Thing Challenge seemed extreme so I dismissed it. Of course, tiny houses seemed radical when I first heard about them, too. Now I’ve spent 10 months living in a tiny house, I’ve helped with my friend’s Tiny Barn Build, and I have my Summer Dream Job: Tiny House Design-Building. Downsizing to just 100 Things doesn't seem quite so radical anymore.

The premise of the 100 Thing Challenge is simple: narrow down your personal possessions to just 100 things. You go through your belongings, you count them, and you decide what you can part with so that you end up with just 100 things. The trickiest aspect is neither counting nor deciding what to purge. I think the trickiest part is deciding how to count.

The 100 Thing Challenge is a game, a competition, a test. But you get to make up your own rules. I appreciate that since I’m much more likely to follow rules that aren’t arbitrary. Some people are pretty generous with themselves. For instance, the guy named Dave who invented the challenge counted “library” as one item. Others are sticklers for their own rules. For instance, Tammy of Rowdy Kittens counts her camera body and her two lenses as three separate things. I’m somewhere in the middle. Here are the rules I created for myself:

  • I’m going to keep two lists of 100 things. One list is my personal possessions, which is all the stuff that the two-year-old in me would defend as “mine!” The other list is household items that I would share with housemates if I had any.
  • Sets (i.e. measuring spoons) and pairs (i.e. socks) count as just one thing.
  • Identical, interchangeable, easily replaceable items count as one thing. For instance, I have a bunch of mason jars with plastic lids I use for bulk food storage, fridge food storage, to go containers, candle holders, a piggy bank, etc. I’m not going to count them as 30 separate things. That’s just silly!
  • The parts of an item are counted with that item, even if they were additions. For instance, my bike lights and lock are additions to my bike, but I don’t ride without them, so I’m not going to count them as separate things. They’re part of my bike as far as I’m concerned.
  • Accessories that go with an object are counted with that item if they are necessary for it to function optimally. For instance, I have a sleeping bag liner because I can’t stand sleeping in a sleeping bag without one. It’s technically possible but I’m going to be grumpy, so in my head the sleeping bag and its liner are one thing and I’m going to count them that way.
  • In some cases a container counts as one thing and its contents don’t count individually (examples may include my toiletry bag, my tool box, and my craft bin).
  • I’m not going to count consumable products. Food, shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, dish soap, etc. aren’t counted as things. But I’m going to create a Use It or Lose It policy. I have a bizarre tendency to hoard consumable things (like a lotion that smells nice or a tea I like). It’s as though I’m trying to make them last even if I don’t have to. Some things are better fresh! So henceforth I’m not going to be afraid to use things up. I’ll put consumable goods in one place and as I use them I’ll transfer them to a different place to show they’ve been used. Anything I have not used during the past month will be subject to scrutiny and purging before my move.

I'll be making two moves this summer: first to My Summer Garden Cottage and then to someplace new that's yet to be determined. (To see where I ended up, click here.) So I’m going to go through my belongings, take inventory, and figure out where I stand with the My Things Challenge. I may end up proudly claiming a larger number. The number 100 is completely arbitrary, after all. And, as previously mentioned, I don’t much care for arbitrary. But I figure 100 is a starting point and I can decide what works for me. (To find out what number I landed on, click here.)

After all, minimalism isn’t about deprivation. It’s about focus. It’s about figuring out what one needs and prioritizing what one loves. All the rest is Just Stuff.