How to 80/20 Your Possessions

In Essays, Self Improvement

In this essay I am going to argue against the consumer based society that we currently live in. I’ve touched on this before.

The short version is this: buying more things does not make you happier. It may cause a temporary spike in happiness because when you buy something your brain releases the pleasure inducing hormone Dopamine. This is exactly the same process that goes on in a drug addict’s brain.

Retail therapy doesn’t work.

The advanced Western economies have some of the highest levels of depression in the world. Isn’t that absurd? In the very countries where a large percentage of the world’s wealth is concentrated, people are not happy. Granted, there are huge levels of inequality in most Western countries but everyone enjoys a quality of life that is still unimaginable for the billions of people all over the world who struggle for their day to day existence.

The other side of the coin is not about buying but about collecting. Just the general accumulation of objects that happens in most people’s lives. Even before most of us became adults we already have far more than we actually need to live a well balanced happy life. This accumulation of “stuff” chains to our current lifestyles and often can be one of the factors that stops us making fundamental changes.

What’s the Problem?

But hold on, what’s the actual problem with having a lot of stuff in the first place? We need to address this before we get into discussions about why you should 80/20 your possessions! After all, having identified that buying things does not lead to happiness, what would be wrong with buying a lot of stuff if you already have that true inner happiness?

I guess the problem is that owning stuff requires time and money, and this time and money is often better spent actually living your life.

Remember, applying the 80/20 rule to time is the base on which the whole 80/20 system is built on. How can you hope to achieve anything amazing in your life if you are constantly worrying about all the things you have bought and also what you are going to buy next.

While having 60 pairs of shoes may appear harmless (well, debate that with your bank manager!) it actually shows a deep sense of dissatisfaction with your life. It shows that you have a large disconnection between your level of anticipation in buying a pair of shoes and the reality of actually owning that particular pair of shoes.

The problem of this type of Hedonistic lifestyle is that you need bigger and bigger purchases each time to make you get that “hit”. Eventually you either run out of money or nothing really excites you any more. By giving way to your urges each and every time you have literally fried the part of your brain responsible for the feeling of “reward’ and so nothing will be ever good enough. You can cure yourself of this, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

This process of never being satisfied is called Hedonic Adaptation. In a nutshell, no matter what happens to you you will always go back to your “default” level of happiness. Your inner happiness which has nothing to do with the external world.It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just won a large sum of money or lost a leg, after a certain length of time, you will be just as happy as you once were. This insight shoes a glaring deficiency in Western lifestyles. The problem is that we will never be satisfied, no matter how many things we buy, how much sex we have or how many mind altering substances we take.

The real problem with our consumerist society is that it’s trying to fill a bottomless pit, namely our desires. The human capacity for desire is quite astonishing, the sky’s the limit. This is clearly demonstrated by the wealth flaunted by the über rich of today, who are actually no happier than the common person.

There must be a better way of living our lives. Surely we can do more than just chase endless shiny objects. Surely we can have a meaningful life without needing to buy things.Yes, I am suggesting a complete rejection of today’s consumerism and unimpeded hedonism. I am going to suggest that we learn to be happy with the things we already have. Controlling our desires instead of letting them control us.

The problem with desire is that humans do have an natural inbuilt system which prevents us from being satisfied with the status quo. While this was very helpful thousands upon thousands of years ago, it’s actually a hindrance today. Let me explain: when we were still hunter-gatherers, the humans who were least satisfied had a greater chance of improving their lot and thus reproducing. After all, evolution favours the adaptations and mutations which increase the chance of passing on our genes, not the ones that make us happy or fulfilled. So what used to help us survive in the wilderness back in the day, doesn’t help us now that our lifestyles are so far removed from our natural state. In a world that offers us more than we could ever hope to consume in several lifetimes, constantly wanting more is actually a hindrance to our well-being. Hedonic adaptation is great during lean times but we currently do not live in a bad era ( historically speaking). I’ll let the infamous Tyler Durden sum it all up:

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives.

Also, owning too much stuff makes you less likely to go ahead with major life decisions that involve changing locations. This is quite obvious. You are far less likely to move to the other side of the world if you have the opportunity to do so if you are (quite literally) weighed down with all the stuff you own.

You (probably) have too much Stuff

Even if you are a frugal person by today’s standards, you have too much “stuff”. Stuff has a tendency to multiply without us even realising and before you know it, you have far too much of it! This often leads to people reaching the conclusion that their house or apartment just isn’t big enough so they pack all their stuff and move. Then they realise that they need a bigger car because when they do short trips around the city they might need some of this stuff. This obviously requires a bigger car… I think you can see where I am going with this. Stuff attracts other stuff. Surely there must be a simpler way to life?

Attempting to 80/20 the things you own is really about embracing minimalism. I’m not talking about shaving your head and living in large empty white-walled rooms. I am talking about a down-to-earth approach to minimalism. The type that will give you a quiet confidence.


The main benefit of become minimalist is to make life simpler. That’s it. It doesn’t really sound earth-shattering incredible. In itself, becoming minimalist will not make you happier, more productive or richer (both in monetary terms and in life experience). What minimalism will do, is give you the time and space in your life to take the correct decisions that lead to amazing achievements. It’s all about the quality of your thinking and decisions, not the quantity of your actions.

It’s very counterintuitive, but by having less, you end up having more. Remember that you can set your own definition of wealth. I will, as usual, modestly, quote myself from a previous article:

I guess in the end in all boils down to become more minimalist. Enjoying the simple, free things in life. Having the free time to spend with friends and family, being able to exercise and enjoying nature.

It’s also about discovering the distinction between conventional wealth and real wealth. After all, what is the definition of wealth? Let’s look it up and see if sheds any light on how to be content:

“Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. ”

And there it is. The answer is staring us straight in the face. Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions.

That’s the key. Valuable resources.

Minimalism doesn’t mean going without things. It means letting the things that don’t truly matter slide, and enjoying the things that really do.

Remember that most material things cost money and money is time and time is the only commodity which cannot be replaced. While we saw in my previous titled How to 80/20 Your Time that there is plenty of time to do amazing things in your life, make sure that you aren’t using it the majority of it chasing materialistic illusions.

YOU can choose what are your valuable resources. Almost everybody would agree that time is a valuable resource. So why spend so much of it working at a job you hate for money you use to buy stuff you don’t need?

How to 80/20 your Possessions

So now that we have come to the conclusion that we probably own too many objects and that we should get rid of some (perhaps most?!) of them. Enter the good old 80/20 rule. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get rid of 80% of your possessions in one go, unless you are really hardcore. A more realistic initial clearing out goal is one third. Get rid of one third of the things you own. If you think about it, that’s quite a bit. A large burden off your shoulders.

But before we can start clearing our stuff out, we need some kind of criteria to identify the useful 20% from the useless 80%. I will share with you the criteria I have used and in fact still use. Perhaps this will fit you like a glove, but in most cases you will need to adapt it to your own character.

I ask myself the following questions:

It is useful/does it serve a practical purpose?

This is an obvious point. If the object in question has a practical purpose, it’s often worth keeping. For instance, without my laptop I could not update this website thus I decided to keep my laptop! It’s worth noting that your stuff should have a clearly defined purpose. If it’s more like “yeah well, I might find some use for it one day” then consider eliminating it from your life.

Have I used this item in the last three months?

Obviously use your head for this one. Don’t throw away all your summer clothes just because you haven’t worn them in a while! This is often a good place to start when you are clearing out your life. Look at the things you haven’t used in a while and ask yourself how much difference it would make to your life if you didn’t own those objects. Often the answer is quite clear.

Would I miss it?

Try and imagine your life without the object. Think ahead six months and try and imagine whether you would truly miss it. I find that I almost always answer this one with a “no”. I guess that’s because I’m not so attached to the things I own so I can adapt quite easily if I were to lose them.

Will I need it in the foreseeable future?

Again this is an obvious one. That’s why we don’t throw away our summer clothes during wintertime! Remember that minimalism is not just about the objects you own or don’t own. It’s also about the actions you take or don’t take. For instance, if you work primarily online but you decide to get rid of your internet connection and laptop and this means if you have to go to an internet cafe each day when you want to work. That’s faux-minimalism. Yes, it appears to be minimalist because you now have less “stuff”, but your lifestyle has taken a huge hit. Obviously there is a fine line here and you need to decided where the line is!

Is it aesthetically pleasing?

If for any object I can answer three of these questions with a ‘no’, then the object in question is either being trashed, going to charity or ending up on Ebay.

Well, there are actually a few approaches to 80/20 your possessions. You can go through everything you own in one go and put each item through your chosen criteria. I highly recommend you do this if you are going to be moving home any time soon. It’s a brilliant ‘excuse’ and you may find you can move into a smaller home!

Alternatively you can do it room by room in your house/apartment. This has the advantage that you don’t have to temporarily turn your life upside down and you sort everything out. You can spend one weekend per room.

My advice: start with the big things.

If you really think about it, I bet you can straight away identify various objects that have been hanging round for too long without even looking through anything you own.

A few points to consider.

What you need vs what you want

This is a big one. It’s incredible what we think we need to live vs what we actually require. The best strategy here is to be grateful for what you already have and to wish for things you already own. I know it sounds strange, but it works. Try it!

What 20% of your possessions do you value the most?

I’m not talking about monetary value here but intrinsic value, which will vary person to person. Work out what you value most and the rest you can probably do without.

Some objects are genuinely useful.

Books, musical instruments, cameras, laptops. Depending on your work and situation getting rid of 80% of the things you own can be unrealistic. Perhaps you are a musician and you have a lot of music in your house. This is often unavoidable.

To finish, let’s have another wise saying from the ever-charismatic Tyler Durden from Fight Club:

The things you own end up owning you.