Welcome to Decluttering for Geeks. This is Part I of a four-part series:
- Part I: Computer Components
- Part II: RPGs
- Part III: Books
- Part IV: Media
So after glancing at the current crop of decluttering books, I think it’s safe to say that the subgenre of “decluttering for geeks” is underserved. Which is a bit disappointing, because we geeks have, shall we say, special needs when it comes to decluttering. Sure, some guy like Peter Walsh might give you some general guidelines to follow… but is he going to be able to intelligently advise you whether to keep your old copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil? What about Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil? Is this a trick question? Probably!
Typical decluttering books devote at least a chapter or two about why decluttering is a good thing. To save space, I’m going to assume that you’re already at least partly convinced. Here’s the thumbnail argument:
- decluttering will save you time (you can find your stuff quickly)
- decluttering will save you money (you can live in a smaller house, or avoid using external storage)
- decluttering will save your sanity (you won’t be distracted by constant reminders of abandoned projects and rooms that need cleaning)
And here’s the thumbnail of the thumbnail argument. There but for the grace of God go we all.
Okay, so, computers. Most self-respecting geeks go through a phase of building their own computers. It’s fun to build exactly what you want, fun to compare and contrast different components with your fellow system builders, fun to put together a $500 box that outperforms the $2000 machine of the non-geek. You have powers beyond the ken of mortal men!
But like mathematics and women’s gymnastics, system building is a youngster’s game. Although the truly hardcore might stick with this hobby for decades, the typical geek burns out around their 30th birthday. All of a sudden, debugging overheating problems and scouring the internet for updated drivers becomes… less fun. You’ve reached the magical age where time begins to > money. Maybe it’s because you’re making more money, or maybe it’s because you feel the icy hand of death approaching. Either way, you sell out. You buy a Name Brand Computer, possibly a shiny silver one with a fruity logo. At first you feel guilty, dirty even. Then you get over it.
The end result is closets full of old, decaying systems, plus scads of individual components: Pentium II motherboards, PCI sound cards, and cables. Lots and lots of cables.
Before you can get rid of your computer stuff, you have to convince yourself to get rid of all your computer stuff. This is harder than it sounds.
So we’ll start with an anecdote. When I first started going through my cable collection, I pulled everything out of the desk drawers and tried to save only stuff I really needed. After about fifteen minutes of flailing around, I think I had decided to get rid of maybe two cables.
Sensing that things weren’t going so well, I called my girlfriend in, much like calling in an airstrike. The conversation proceeded as follows:
S: So, what’s this?
Me: Ah… I think that’s a USB A-to-B cable, still in its packaging. Hey, that’s kind of cool.
S: Have you needed this cable in the last two years?
S: Do you think you’ll need this cable in the next two years?
Me: Probably not.
S: Did you even know you had this cable?
S: What would you have done if you had decided you did need this cable?
Me: … gone to the store and bought one?
After that, it was pretty easy to narrow things down.
So why is it so hard for us to get rid of our old computer cruft? Here are some of the arguments we make to ourselves:
- “This stuff is really valuable.” Wrong. Nothing depreciates faster than computer components. With the possible exception of certain cameras.
- “I’ll save money by resurrecting this old box / building a useful box out of these components.” Wrong. That feeble eight-year-old box does not have enough CPU/watt to be worth powering on at all. Farm those tasks out to a machine that can do the same work for a fraction of the cost.
- “I paid a lot of money for these components back in the day.” Irrelevant. What’s important is how much it’s worth right now (close to zero), versus how much money it’s costing you to store it (more than you think).
- “This one is a classic, I’d just be sad to have to lose it.” Wrong. I have a friend, D, who has lovingly restored an original Amiga from his childhood. Maintaining the Amiga and being able to play some of its old games is a source of pride for D. But you are not D. Your “classic” machine is not being set up in a place of honor and shown off to fellow geeks. It’s sitting powered off and buried in a dusty closet. It needs to go.
After figuring out what to get rid of, you’re faced with the the second problem: how to get rid of it. Electronics are tricky, because you can’t just toss them in the ordinary recycle bin. And it’s not always easy to sell them or give them away. When it comes to decluttering, I’m a strong believer in the “take time to find things a good home” philosophy… but computer components depreciate so quickly that it’s often hard to find anyone who wants them.
Some of your options include:
- Donate to schools or charities: A reasonable choice, but only suitable for relatively new hardware that’s in good working order. You don’t want to saddle a school with an IBM Deskstar hard drive that’s mere days away from the Click of Death. Also, most schools and charities are savvy enough not to take old hardware anyway. They don’t have infinite time to tinker with dying machines.
- Give it away: One geek’s trash is another geek’s treasure. You might know someone who still has the system builder bug. If you work at a large company, you might have a “free stuff” email list, and then there’s always Freecycle.
- eBay or Craigslist: Getting a little cash for your stuff is always nice. But eBay is a bit of a trap, since once you start thinking about maximizing! my! return! on all this low-value hardware, you’ll end up holding onto it for a long time, possibly forever. The goal of this game is to get rid of the stuff. (It’s like playing Puerto Rico — at the end of the game, money is nearly irrelevant, it’s all about the victory points.)
- Recycling: The EPA has a list of links for finding electronic waste recyclers and dropoff stations. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, GreenCitizen has several locations and excellent rates, or you can drop your stuff off for free at WeirdStuff in Sunnyvale. They’ll go through your broken and crappy stuff, take what they want, and recycle the rest. Highly recommended. Just make sure you leave the loading dock immediately, and don’t make the rookie mistake of wandering through the WeirdStuff warehouse. There’s only one way to win at decluttering, and that’s not it.
Next time: Role-playing games!