10 April 2014

On Culling: Tips

Source: Juliette Tang

Following the Culling Mistakes post, here are a few tips I learned these past years and would like to share with you if it can help. After all, editing my collection of items has improved my life a lot, despite the mistakes I made along the way, and I can only encourage you to give it a try, if you feel so enclined.

Of course, these are not "musts" for anyone's culling process, but rather things that I learned through my own experience. I am using these tips now when I edit my collections of items, and I would probably have avoided a few mistakes if someone had given me these at the time. I hope it helps.

Start With the Question: Why Culling? 

As you may have noticed, the common thread of my culling mistakes is haste. While I understand (and experienced) the urgency to get rid of stuff once you decide to turn your life around, I think it is important to sit down and give the whole thing a thought. A bit like shopping really - you don't want to make "impulse culling".

Well, it is a stereotypical tip. Mireille Guiliano, in her French Women Don't Get Fat book, starts her tips by suggesting to ask yourself why you eat unhealthily and why you want to turn your habits around. It is the same for the simplification of material items. Why did you accumulate so many in the first place? What improvements are you hoping to get by culling your items? What do these items mean for you, and why?

With your objectives, aspirations and goals in mind, along with a reality check about what culling can and can't achieve, I believe the simplification process can be more efficient, and that you can avoid many pitfalls.

Example: One of my simplification goals is to have a more practical living space, to spend less time doing my daily tasks, make them more fun, store my stuff more easily etc. Therefore, my culling process has been oriented around the usefulness of my items, the streamlining of the daily tasks (such as making tea for example), but also the aesthetical/pleasure to use aspect of things. 

Define your Culling Objectives and Criteria

A lot of reasons for wanting to keep (or get rid of) an item are subjective and emotional. It has been proven* that we have a stronger and biased attachement to what we own. There might be some buyer's guilt too, for having spent money into an item and feeling bad about letting it go, or some sentimental attachment. That's why simplification tends to work better when coached by an external, objective person.

We can't all hire a coach or embark our close ones in your simplification journey, so one good way to minimize these biases is to start by defining clear and logical culling objectives and criteria, such as:

  • how many times you have used the object in the past
  • how worn out it is
  • how pratical it is for the use you have of it
  • what is your available storage space or how you can organize your space
  • the overall quality, material and finish of the object
  • what it brings to your life (that's more general though)
I'd suggest to take the time to prepare such a list, adapted to the item type you will go through. For example, culling kitchenware can include things like "Can it be used in the microwave/dishwasher", culling clothes can include "does it fit my body shape".

Example: When I consider culling a piece of jewelry, my criteria are - what is it made of? Does it look cheap or pulled together? Is it worn out/broken, did I wear it during the past year? If yes, how many times? Is it comfortable, does it stay in place, does it cause any allergies? Can I have it mended/repaired/altered?

Don't Hesitate to Experiment

There are a lot of minimalist or "life coach" blogs out there that suggest a process or ideas to make the most of what you own and experiment living with less. You don't have to radically get rid of everything right now. If you are unsure of your culling motivations, or what criteria you should prioritize, it might be worth starting with some experiments. 

For example, why not try the Project 333 to understand your wardrobe preferences better before starting the actual culling process? The minimalists also shared an experiment they made, of packing all of their stuff, and only unpack what they use, to see what they really used daily. 

If you are unsure and have storage space available, why not pack the "culled" items away for a while before setting them free for real, to see if you actually miss them or not? This seems to be very efficient, as it dims the "ownership bias" and makes you look at your items more objectively. 

Example: I remember doing that a lot when I was in Lyon, since I had a cellar. I'd go through a big simplification week-end as a way to kickstart new habits and change, I'd pack all the "unsure" items away in the cellar and go through them again six months later.

Other Tips

Finally, here are a few more tips, maybe not worth their own big paragraph, but which have been useful to me nonetheless...

  • Remember to consider both practical and emotional factors 
    Emotion alone can lead us to bad decisions, but practical factors alone can take the soul out of things. I believe it is important to have a good balance of the two during the process. 

  • Always prioritize what you already own over a new purchase 
    An item is never perfect. There is always a newer, better version around the corner as years pass. Culling an item should be based on the fact that it is inadequate, not on the fact that there is a better one out there. Otherwise, you will never be happy with what you currently have.

  • If the item is still in good shape and usable, consider giving it another chance before setting it free 
    Sometimes, we just want novelty, and our good old things lost their appeal. Before discarding them, it might be worth seeing them through a new light - by looking for inspirations online, new ways to use it, or simply by writing down its uses and advantages to "rekindle the flame".

  • Always think long term instead of being impatient 
    Life editing is a long process, there is no shortcut. It is trial and error, self discovery, slow replacements as we stumble upon a great item by chance. Besides, there is no such thing as a perfect, and "finished" collection of items.

* I can't find the source I read that from. If you get it please let me know, I like to make sure I'm not writing crap.


  1. I need to do the "pack-away" see if you forget them/miss them with some of my clothes, especially the ones I've outgrown.

    I'd also like to add modifications/tailoring before getting rid of certain items. I almost donated a beautiful white sundress because my weight kept fluctuating. Thankfully now I fit it after the seamstress took it in on the sides--and I have a neat "new" dress for spring! Of course that is if the tailoring costs do not surpass the item price. I'm fortunate that my seamstress charged me so little and that the fixes were relatively easy.

    1. I think alterations are a good way to give a second life to items! I had a black summer cardigan that I hadn't worn for 2 summers because of its specific shape - short behind, but with longer draped "sides" of sorts at the front - the "sides" would fall almost to my knees, which not only made me look dwarfish but also stopped me from wearing short jackets. Instead of setting it free I have shortened the "sides" and given it a second life! I intend to use the disarded fabric to make a summer scarf.

      People who can DIY have a lot of ideas, turning several pairs of old jeans into a denim skirt for example. I don't have that kind of skill, but the seamstress can be a good ally to make inadequate items adequate ;) The only problem is to make sure that the planned "altered version" will indeed be adequate, otherwise it is a waste of money... I personally don't mind paying more for alterations than what the inital garment cost, if I can afford it, as it is still eco friendly to use what we have over buying something new, and it helps the local business.

    2. I like to keep an ongoing bag of things I'm planning to donate, and then whenever it fills up or I have time to take it in, I can see what I've put in it earlier and forgotten about. Sometimes I change my mind and keep a couple things, but usually not. I find that just not seeing something for a while makes it easier to evaluate whether you actually need/want it.

      Alterations are very helpful too! My sewing skills are not great but I recently turned two ultra short and tight dresses from American Apparel into one mid-length dress. Still super proud about it, haha.

  2. Re: your asterisk, are you thinking of this study? http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103109001279
    i.e. the act of owning the mug made people attach a greater value to it, rather than it being to do with wanting compensation for the anticipated sense of loss.

    1. Also, you might have already seen this but: another new Dove beauty ad! http://mashable.com/2014/04/09/dove-beauty-patch/
      I feel like this particular approach is weaker than any of the previous ones - wow, a placebo effect? People's perceptions can be easily influenced? How ground-breaking! So all we need to do is realise it's all a state of mind and then we can feel happy and fulfilled? Again it's just about the emotions evoked in the viewer by the carefully orchestrated emotions portrayed in the ad - it's not really getting to the point, which is that we're bombarded with endless imagery every day that's designed to make us feel inferior and inadequate, and we are socialised from birth to feel like that, so simply being aware that our self-esteem is a state of mind isn't particularly empowering. But I guess that's partly just me coming from my background of having done drug studies and having administered placebos and having a pretty good idea of how easily influenced people's perceptions can be - this whole ad just seems kind of redundant to me. But it'll produce a very short-term boost in self-esteem for some viewers, and it'll cast Dove in a positive light in many people's minds, which is exactly what Dove is after! Sigh.

    2. Yes, it must be that study, I remember a business about mugs in the paper I read about the ownership bias. I also remember watching a TED talk about origami and the value the owner gave as opposed to a potential buyer, but this included the fact that the owner took the time to actually make the origami first, which is an additional parameter. Thanks for pointing this out!

      To the latest Dove campaign, I have watched the clip and it seems indeed to be a bit "too much" this time. Again, I like the message they are aiming to convey - that beauty is a state of mind - but yes, you can see it coming even if you never did any research involving placebos. And it has the same pitfalls as the other Dove real beauty clips, as in reinforcing the idea that a woman has to feel beautiful in order to have a healthy self esteem. The campaign remains within the expecations though - given their past clips and the fact that they are a beauty company.

      I have seen an interesting video lately, where regular women are photographed, photoshopped by professionals, as if it was for a magazine cover, and they discover their new "self". They actually don't recognize themselves and realize they like their real self better. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRlpIkH3b5I) I'm not sure of the video purpose (I do'nt think it's linked to a brand or product) but what I like about it, is that it doesn't say a woman has to be beautiful to feel good. It says it is normal to have "flaws" and it's a part of who we are and it shouldn't stop ourselves from becoming something more. Anyway, that video made me think of something Dove could have done, more or less, hence the mention.

    3. What really gets me about the latest Dove campaign is that I don't understand how it could have possibly been ethical. If you give people a patch and tell them it is going to change how they think and feel, you are basically telling them they are receiving a psychoactive drug. The whole point of the concept is that the women thought this was an external influence when it was actually an internal thing, so from their perspective during the experiment, for all intents and purposes, they were being administered something that would change their brain, which by definition must be a psychoactive chemical. Even if it wasn't happening, the whole premise is based on assuming that these women thought it was happening. Placebos have to adhere to the same ethical standards as actual drugs, because the whole point is that people consider the possibility that they are taking an actual drug. It's totally unethical to not give subjects the full picture before they agree to be in the experiment. You seriously cannot just say "This is a beauty patch" and leave it at that - it's unethical, it's manipulative, it disempowers the subject (how can they make choices about their own body if they don't know what you're doing to it), and it's made all the worse by the fact that this is a PR exercise.

      I like that BuzzFeed video, even though I feel like all these sorts of things are manipulative to a degree because they set out to make you think in a particular way, even if it's well intentioned - like what if one of those women loved the way she looked post-Photoshop? I guess they wouldn't have included that, even though it is probably realistic to assume that a lot of women have seen so many Photoshopped bodies and faces that they would like their own post-Photoshop image. I mean, personally I think I'd still be in the other camp of "Oh wow, this isn't me, this looks weird" but you never know. But I'm constantly bewildered by the level of image altering that goes on, like when you see a photo from a cosmetics campaign and the model's pores have disappeared and their skin looks so unnatural that you start to get the impression of a cyborg. Like Constance Jablonski without makeup or special lighting or Photoshop looks like this:
      And then she is Photoshopped to hell and back so she looks like this:
      So someone with absolutely flawless, perfect skin (presumably primarily because of her genes) still needs to be Photoshopped to remove any semblence of biological reality? It's so warped and bizarre. It's like an arms race, where competing brands try to make their products stand out by having ad campaigns in which the people look even more flawless than ever before, but eventually that sort of approach just had to cross the boundary into blatant and obvious artificiality.

    4. I hadn't seen it that way actually, I assumed the "beauty patch" would have been something like the Oenobiol pills, allegedly making your hair shinier or something. In any case, what I mean when I say it feels "too much", is that it isn't a believable experiment. The sketches thing? Why not, you can imagine a woman describing herself more harshly than another person would.

      But accepting to use a "Beauty Patch" with obscure components, and suddenly feel better in less than 2 weeks? It sounds harder to believe. My theory is that it's not a real experiment, but a staged clip with actors. It might explain the fact that they don't really need to be "ethical" about anything. And it makes the clip less powerful, in my opinion. That's my marketer judgement, but I feel they are overexploiting the concept a bit. You know, when a creative agency has a great idea and it becomes a campaign, but then they decline it in so many ways the later ads are kind of crappy? i'm thinking about the Nespresso Clooney ads right now. The first one was a great concept, and some others are good, like the one with god. But the later ones? Overexploiting the concept. It's time to find another idea. I think it's the same for Dove, this clip looks like overexploiting the concept of the experiment as proof of concept.

      As for the BuzzFeed video, it is typically the kind of material I would show my daughter one day. If I have one. Of course, the video is edited, they probably selected the women who reacted the way they wanted and they probably chose the most impactful sentences within the footage of their reaction. But it conveys a certain message, and it does so well. I think it is crucial to educate young girls (and boys) about photoshop and how unrealistic the images are, because I think a lot of people don't actually realize that. I have to admit I agree with you on not understanding why the photoshop goes so far in magazines. Maybe it became some sort of standard in the fashion/beauty industry. Maybe they have some actual market studies that show these flawless images sell better than the real model...

    5. This is such an interesting discussion. I read about the Dove commercial on a different blog and watched it as well, and I completely agree with Kali.
      As for the photoshopped ads: I feel as though this photoshop practice might be at its height right now and maybe campaigns will become more 'real' in the future again..? On the one hand, you regularly witness photoshop blunders such as navels being brushed away, bosoms ending up in 'off' places, arms or thighs being made ridiculously thin ... There must be a limit to how far they can take it :). On the other hand, there is the growing influence (on buyers' behavior) of blogs and vlogs, showing real people without much photoshop reviewing products. I wonder which direction all of this will take us.

    6. Very relevantly (and conveniently!) I just stumbled across this old New Yorker article on the guy who is (or was, and maybe still is) the main Photoshopper/retoucher in the business:

      'I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual “real women” in their undergarments. It turned out that it was a Dangin job. “Do you know how much retouching was on that?” he asked. “But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”'

      Dangin seems to have some interest in not totally erasing the character and idiosyncrasies of his subjects, but I'm assuming there's so much demand for this sort of Photoshopping that more people who aren't as discerning as he is are responsible for some pretty high profile imagery that we see.

  3. i have hoarders and hoarders alike in my family: my mother, brother, and aunt (348578975 old toothbrushes, yeah) definitely a trait (sickness) inherited from my mom's side of the family. I just emptied out an entire 5 drawer dresser filled with utter JUNK! with the "oh but we might need it..." if they don't know what's even in there for the last x years, they don't need it!! cables and cords for broken/don't even own anymore electronics... even better now that the dresser is empty my friend might take it. The best strategy is to gradually throw stuff away here and there, so they don't notice. It's so bad that I have to throw things away some where else so they don't know I put in the trash.

    1. I think trying to cull other people's stuff is a whole new world of problems altogether! Maybe that's why it is easier to start simplification with the wardrobe too - it is something that belongs only to you, as opposed to most of the stuff in your home if you live with other people. Being a hoarder sounds like more of a psychological issue, do you think it can come from education as well? I don't have any first hand experience of this though, but from what you are describing it sounds prety bad indeed.

  4. Ah! Jess beat me to it, but I was thinking of the endowment effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endowment_effect , which has been documented in a few places.

    Also I agree, you should always know why you're doing something in the first place. Basically, you want to make sure that you're treating the disease and not just the symptoms.

    1. Yes, I like that metaphor, treating the disease and not just the symptoms, that's exactly it. In today's society we have a very emotional link to objects, we put a lot of expectations in them, they mean much more than what they really were meant for - so for sure culling objects also means resolving whatever issues that can be linked to them first.