Decluttering for Geeks: Computer Components

Welcome to Decluttering for Geeks. This is Part I of a four-part series:

  1. Part I: Computer Components
  2. Part II: RPGs
  3. Part III: Books
  4. 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.

The Psychological

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?

Me: No.

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?

Me: Nope.

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.

The Practical

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!

21 thoughts on “Decluttering for Geeks: Computer Components

  1. Can there be a further series on decluttering your blog? That’s an area where minimalizing could be helpful as well. I’ve gone through and minimalized mine – taking out feed icons because good browsers auto-discover, realizing that links to other sites don’t need to be on every page, making the text of the page the central focus instead of the design elements. You should too!

  2. It’s not a bad idea, but I think I’m not the right guy to do it — this blog isn’t very minimal or elegant (though it’s an improvement over previous designs). Actually, [your post is a pretty good start](
    As for [Mark](, he’s (surprise!) going too far. That comment on his site about “[Best viewed by Browser X](” is funny, but on-point.

  3. My tip for all types of de-cluttering, having moved or been party to over 25 home moves:

    Imagine you are moving yourself in the current vehicle you own across the country (minimum of 2000 miles). Would this component be monetarily worth shipping in the vehicle or be worthwhile to ship via standard carrier?

    The mover’s corollary:

    If the object is not a personal memento, and you have not opened the container or utilized the item since you last moved, de-clutter it.

    The gear corollary:

    Is there support, documentation or replacement hardware available for the component? If not, unless you’re a tech archaeologist, de-clutter it.

  4. Very good advice, Dru.

    * Does your main tip apply to furniture? I can see owning a cheap, useful couch, but wanting to leave it behind in a cross-country move. Unless your philosophy is, “I resolve *only* to own heirloom quality furniture.” TNH might lean that way with her “[buy real](” philosophy.
    * The mover’s corollary is excellent, but I just want to point out that “personal memento” is a nasty loophole, because people define personal mementos far too widely. If it really is a personal memento, what’s it been doing in that box all this time? (See the anecdote about D’s Amiga, above.)
    * The gear corollary: brilliant.

  5. It really depends for furniture. Typically, since most flatpack or young professional furniture is not constructed for cross country moves, I would recommend donating/recycling/freecycling it to someone at Point A, then freecycling, recycling or purchasing something that fits your new circumstances at Point B. If you do own heirloom or solidly constructed furniture items that are worth hauling 2000 miles, then you can keep them, because they pass the standard carrier clause.

    Obviously for de-clutter, this is more of a mental exercise, so it is up to the geek to maintain intellectual honesty 🙂 Computer desks and chairs rarely pass the test. Old HW almost never does. SW can usually be consolidated onto new media.

    For the memento clause, I look at it this way. Would you cry, gnash teeth or otherwise express long-term (not the 5 mins you spend thinking about it at first) emotional anguish if said item was lost to theft, flood or fire? If so, a. you can keep it, but b. you’d better be insuring it, too!

    My axiom for mementos: If I can buy it online/ebay, it isn’t a memento.

    Awesome series by the way. I know Dip has lamented this very topic regularly.

    Another thought/tool I’ve heard of: sorting the clutter by year then type. It can either be year last used or year made.

  6. Re: recycling electronic cruft, GreenCitizen (which has a location on El Camino at San Antonio, at the nexus of Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Mountain View), is your friend.

  7. This post has opened my eyes. I will now declutter my computer stuff with renewed vigor. I mentioned your post on my blog but I couldn’t find the trackback button?! 🙂

  8. Ah, sorry LJP, I had to give up on trackbacks — I found it to be too hard to control the spam. Anyway, glad this post helped! 🙂

  9. Thanks again for the post-age Evan, reminded me that I had a closet full of old Compaq CPUs, and several ‘pink’ CRTs. Less stuff next time I have to move.

    In the Far East Bay, Rapid Recycle can do your e-waste pickup.

  10. I could kiss you sir!
    I am a wife to a geek and this is something that I have struggled with FOREVER now. He has gotten much better over the years, but this is something that I will share with some friends who are running into the same problems with their geek spouses.
    THANK YOU!!!

  11. 1. Any space that I claim eventually looks like a bomb hit it. In order to clean enough space to work, all computer cables, old drives, power cords, etc. go into a box – which is currently on overflow.

    2. You’re right, I know you’re right, but I have the mindset of squirrel. I still have a 286 in the closet and a Commodore in the attic.

    3. The old stuff is heavy. I’m currently taking apart a 100 pound printer – so that I can through it out.

    I think my next computer will be a laptop – just to cut down on the space, when it’s obsolete.

  12. Be strong, Denise! You can get rid of this stuff.

    Though personally, I might make an exception for the Commodore, if you can get it working again. 🙂

    I think it’s not necessarily a bad idea to have a desktop. More important is to get rid of the computers that you don’t need anymore. You can probably get by with far fewer working machines than you think you can.

  13. Evan,

    I ran into this article and just had to comment.

    I was laughing outloud throughout the article – you describe everything to a T – from falling out of love with building PCs to the questions you go through when trying to get rid of technical components and equipment.

    I built my first PC many, many years ago – and then several others. In the process I accumulated several boxes of components including motherboards, modems, cables, you name it. And although I’ve listed the parts on Craigslist several times, I was also trying to maximize! my! return!

    Great post. I am going to post them on immediately!

    Oh, and did I mention I am a Professional Organizer? Nobody is perfect!

    Claudine Motto

  14. Evan,

    I ran into this post and just had to comment.

    I was laughing outloud – you describe everything to a T – from falling out of love with building PCs to the questions you go through when trying to get rid of technical components and equipment.

    I built my first PC many, many years ago – and then several others. In the process I accumulated several boxes of components including motherboards, modems, cables, you name it. And although I’ve listed the parts on Craigslist several times, I was also trying to maximize! my! return!

    Great post. I am going to post them on immediately!

    Oh, and did I mention I am a Professional Organizer? Nobody is perfect!

    Claudine Motto

  15. Awesome Claudine — really glad this helped. Oh, and next time you’re talking to a client who has a closet of PC junk, please feel free to steal liberally from this post. 🙂

  16. Actually, we had two. I had one, hubby had one. They were both working when we bundled them up and put them in the attic.

    However, I wasn’t here when we had the roof redone and DH might have thrown one of them out. And I don’t go in the attic – scary place. We call it Area 51 and at one point we got rid of most of the space junk … old computer parts and monitors.

    We even have an old color printer for the Commodore that used a film ribbon that goes with the system. He was going to throw it out – but I pitched a wobbly. (Love the Brits, sounds so much nicer than had a hissy fit.) If we ever move – it might hit the trash.

Comments are closed.