Path to Craftsmanship: The Art of Throwing It Away

Some hackers build sharp, mildly toxic nests of parts, components, and thrifty finds around themselves. These nests, while not comfortable, are certainly comforting. They allow the hacker’s psyche to inhabit a locale as chaotic as their minds. Within these walls of stuff and clutter, stunning hacks pour out amid a small cloud of cursing. This article is not for them.
Very few of us can actually function in a workplace such like that of the venerable Jim Williams (photo from linked article). Thanks to the commenters for mentioning him in the previous article.

For the rest of us, clutter is a Zen destroying, seemingly unconquerable, monster that taunts our poor discipline and organizational skill from the dark corner of our minds. However, there is an easy solution that is oft overlooked. Somewhat obviously, most organization problems can be solved by simply not having things to organize.

It’s taken me a very long time to realize the source of my clutter woes. My first tactic was to blame myself for my inability to keep up with the mess. A more superior human would certainly be able to use their effortless discipline to keep a space organized. However, the clutter was a symptom of a problem completely separate from my actual ability to keep a space clean.

I first realized the power of throwing things away when an employer hired a quality control guy. The first thing the QC guy did was wander around the workplace interviewing people and taking meticulous notes. The biggest complaint was how unusable the work areas were. We had all sorts of bins and procedures for filing away items, but we just could never keep on top of it.

So, the second thing he did was host a 5S event. The first, “S,” in a 5S even is, “sort”. The very first thing one does when, “sorting,” is to throw away or remove all unnecessary items from the work space. At that first event, out of what I would describe as a small seven person office, we literally threw away a shipping container worth of things. We got rid of a second container’s worth of stuff by donating or selling it.  I took one big thing away from this.

Wow! It is really file-system-consistency-checking nice to work in a space without all that useless crap lying around!

This realization was, of course, followed by, “Wait, why the file-system-conisistency-check am I keeping all that useless crap in my house?”

So, things must be gotten rid of, but how? There’s not just an economic aspect to hoarding things, there’s definitely a psychological aspect as well. Understanding the real impact of both these things are the first steps to taking control of your space. Below is a slideshow of the increasing tidiness of my workspaces over time as I develop better habits, but also reduce the number of things that I own in a dramatic way.

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Why Do I Own the Useless Things I Own?

To understand why we shouldn’t even have brought it into our space in the first place, will help us come to terms with the separation anxiety, overcome it, and throw the dang thing away.

Don’t Gamble.

It took me a long time to figure out why I felt dumb for buying that extra spool of blue painters tape on sale or that cool garage sale find. I mean, it was a good deal. Right? So why do I feel like I just played the slots with my money and lost?

Anytime you buy or keep something you don’t need right now, you are gambling that “future you” needs it enough that the cost of locking the capital in now and using space up for storing it, is less than that future reward. Very rarely does this bet pay off. This is counter-intuitive to the natural state of the hacker mind. Isn’t the point to have it on hand so the hack can happen as quickly as possible? Doesn’t the adage go, “As soon as you throw it away you’ll need it?”

I found this cool stuff in an IBM dot matrix printer. I moved it through three different apartments and two states before I admitted it was garbage and threw it away.
I found this cool stuff in an IBM dot matrix printer. I moved it through three different apartments and two states before I admitted it was garbage and threw it away.

It’s All Weight on Your Mind.

quote-holding-on-is-depressingAt least in my experience, keeping things I don’t need has been more about making myself feel good, than about actually doing the work. I like to have that cool part on hand and hold onto the fantasy, the gamble, that I will do it in the future. To throw that part away is letting go of that fantasy version of myself that has done the project. I like to hold onto the possibilities. However, I’ve discovered that doing a project is rewarding, and holding onto many unfinished projects is depressing.

There is a real mental, monetary, and physical cost to storing items. Once things start to be removed from a space, procurement habits get more controlled, and the mental strain is lessened; the mind begins to want to head towards the path of lowest cost.

What Should I Keep?

It was covered earlier in the post, but the only things that should be in the space are items that are necessary for the work to continue.  It’s hard to say exactly what these items are, as each hacker’s needs are different, but I will try to list some of my example keeps and don’t keeps.


  1. Set of M3 nuts and bolts. I keep a stock of these. I’m always using them in my various constructions, and I take the box out at least once or twice a week.
  2. Tools: I consider tools to be enablers of work. If possible I do not throw away a tool. However, I do throw away redundant tools. For example. I have one ruler, not two.
  3. Glue, Tape, Lubricants, and Chemicals: I have two boxes of glues, tapes, and useful chemicals. I open the boxes at least once a week. Occasionally I’ll sort through the boxes and throw away items that I haven’t used in a long time.
Here's a pile of screwdrivers I removed from my toolbox recently. The purple box on the left covers the entire range of small size screw turning I need.
Here’s a pile of screwdrivers I removed from my toolbox recently. The purple box on the right covers the entire range of small size screw turning I need.

Don’t Keep:

  1. Spring Assortment. I bought a spring assortment years ago. So far I have moved it through five living spaces and opened the box five times. I would have been better served to pay more for the springs I need than to store a collection of springs I don’t.
  2. Fans. I have a big bag of fans. I always feel fans are useful, but I rarely use them and some are just so odd that, realistically, I can’t see even finding a use for them.
  3. Lumber. I got into woodworking and found a great deal on some oak. Now I have a lot of oddly shaped bits of oak. I also thought I was going to build more desks than one, so I have a lot of extra 2x4s. It takes up a ton of room. Since I am not a regular woodworker, I would be better served to buy wood for one project and then throw away the scraps when I am done. In fact, if I do end up giving away or selling the wood, it will mostly be at a loss, and any of the saving I got from buying in bulk are lost.
Okay, so I haven't learned my lesson yet. Don't do this to your workspace. Destined for a craigs-listing soon.
Okay, so I haven’t learned my lesson yet. Don’t do this to your workspace. Destined for a Craigslisting soon.

Good Planning is Better than Keeping Spares.

Since I’ve started to keep less stuff around me, I’ve noticed an interesting side effect. Since I am not designing for the parts I have on hand, I design for the parts I can order or procure. This means that I’ll use the right spring, or the latest development board. For example, by buying that dusty Atmega168 Arduino, I’ve basically locked in thirty dollars to the height of  technology in 2009. However, had I not bought and kept it, when I set out to build my project I would simply order the best out there. For a fifth of that price I could get an ESP8266 board and get WiFi functionality. If I want to be convoluted about it, by not keeping an unnecessary item in inventory, I’ve upgraded my project at a profit.

Aside from that, it forces me to slow down. There’s a lot of fun in the weekend hack, but a two weekend hack will generally come out better. Three weekend? Nobel Prize, minimum. One weekend to design, plan, and order. Another weekend to assemble.

How Should I Buy Things?

There are a few things I always used to do that felt like good practice, but was actually wasting money or producing clutter in the long run. One that was a hard mental fight to get over, is buying the, “extra-value,” size of things. To use a silly example, you wouldn’t buy a five gallon bucket of milk. You know it’s going to go bad before you can get to it. The bucket won’t even fit in your fridge. However, it’s really easy to buy a three lb spool of solder or two rolls of the same color printer filament, but it’s exactly the same thing. If the world sees a solder or filament shortage anytime soon, there are probably much larger problems to deal with. Like alien invasions, or presidents with bad hair.

Bought many years apart. The arduino was on sale, so I thought it would be a good thing to have around. Still haven't used it.
Bought many years apart. The photon is 15 dollars less than I paid and way more capable. The Arduino was on sale, so I thought it would be a good thing to have around. Still haven’t used it. Disclosure: The Photon was given to me by Particle to evaluate.

As mentioned in the previous section, don’t buy what you don’t need for a project. I always had a tendency to buy three springs if I need two. I’ve discovered that to be the wrong approach, unless I fully intend to throw away every spare once the project is complete (which is built in waste). I should instead approach my project with a mind of discipline and purpose and set out to build it without losing a spring. Likewise, I don’t buy three cans of spray paint if I need two. Unless I intend to immediately return the third can to the store. There is no advantage to holding onto a can of spray paint for a rainy day. I have a box that is literally overflowing with the stuff, it is headed out of my home soon.

Money that is well curated and well kept is better than money that is locked up in slowly depreciating capital. I have some Atmel 168s I bought before Arduino was even a word. The sticker is yellowing, and I can guarantee I will never use them. I would much rather have twenty dollars than those chips.

Lastly, I don’t go to the thrift store without a purpose. I have an actual list of tools I am looking for. If I go to a garage sale and see a nice set of taps for sale I don’t buy it. It’s not on my list. Mostly this has resulted in me not going to the thrift store as much, but my wallet and surroundings thank me.

Sort: Remove the Unnecessary.

I started to write a lengthy paragraph about how, once I’ve decided It needs to go, I remove items from my workspace, but I realized I was trying to type out a decision tree. So I’ve made a flowchart of my mental process when getting rid of items.

The best free flowchart software can provide.
The best that free flowchart software can provide.


In the end, throwing things away is hard. It is something that takes practice to be good at. There have literally been books written on the subject. Just be scientific. Do I actually use this? How would I operate if I didn’t have this? I will write a date on the box and if it’s still collecting dust in six months I’ll get rid of it.

My experience has been very much that less is more. That curating the items in a workspace are the actions of someone in control of their mind and their craft. Whereas someone at the whim of their space is less likely to do regular work to their level of satisfaction. Unless they’re Jim Williams.

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