Your life in 10 items

Drowning in a sea of stuff? Well, here's a radical solution: choose the 10 possessions you cannot live without - then bin everything else. Ruth Tierney puts the theory to the test.

Mahatma Gandhi reputedly could the objects he owned on two hands. They included sandals, a plate, a bowl, his glasses and a pocket watch. Compare that with your own list of possessions. No, scratch that because, let's face it, writing an inventory of ownership is a totally untenable task.

Instead, compare Gandhi's sparse stock-take with the contents of your handbag. To get you into the confessional spirit, here's what's in my bulging Chloé holdall (the clue's in the name): purse, keys, mobile, iPod, tissues, lip balm, hair bobble, blotting powder, painkillers, umbrella, pen, shopping list, stamps, oatcakes, concealer, mirror. I've already lost count, and that's just the stuff I lug around on my shoulder. Check out any cupboard, drawer or coat pocket in my home and you'll discover a dizzying array of detritus that defies logic, space and usefulness.

As inspirational people go, Gandhi's pretty high up there, but can the rest of us really live by his Spartan standards? Should we even bother trying? Yes, because being possession-lite enriches your life on numerous levels, according to a grassroots movement that's sweeping the US and now the UK. When Californian blogger Dave Bruno ( began disposing, one by one, of his worldly possessions, he gained an army of fellow purgers - and a book deal. The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperPaperbacks, £9.99) chronicled 39-year-old Bruno's year-long campaign that finally left him with a total of, you guessed it, 100 items.

Gone were the surplus shirts and ties, the iPod and signed baseball jersey. His reasons for this exercise in self-discipline were both political and spiritual. 'The challenge has been a way to personalize my efforts to fight American-style consumerism and live a life of simplicity,' he explained. 'I believe that living without an abundance of personal possessions for an extended period of time is the first step we ought to take in order to realise that we don't need ever-more stuff.' Now, a year after his experiment ended, he's still living by his self-imposed rules. His possessions these days? Just 94 objects, including a skateboard, his wedding ring and one chair.

Back to minimalism

The Guardian columnist Leo Hickman recently took things one step further when he espoused his theory that a person should need only 10 belongings in their life (not including essential clothing and household basics). His own list ranged from the practical (Swiss army knife) to the personal (a painting by his child). 'We have far too much stuff in our lives, and we invest too much money, time and emotion accumulating it,' he said. 'We can now buy the services of "de-clutter coaches" or flog all our junk on eBay - so someone else can own more stuff. A proper challenge for the modern consumerist should be even bolder than Bruno's [100 items].'

In our straitened times, the Brunos and Hickmans of this world embody the extreme end of our collective conscience. We all feel at the mercy of an unstable economy, but here is an opportunity for control. 'We're starting to see that there's a kudos in scarcity - living on and consuming as little as possible is now more fashionable than flaunting your wealth,' explains chartered psychologist Dr Sheila Keegan ( 'This is effectively what happened during the two world wars, when scrimping and saving was a necessity, but one that made people proud to show how little they could manage on.'

On the flipside, a siege-like mentality also lends itself to hoarding. So though we may not be buying new with such abandon, we're not letting go of the old, either, says Marie-Claire Carlyle, a feng-shui consultant and author of How To Become A Money Magnet (Hay House, £8.99). 'A lot of my clients are hanging on to clutter for dear life,' she says. 'The spectre of poverty is making them feel unsafe, and there's a security in their nest of possessions - or so they think.'

'I hanker after minimalism, and love everything to be in its place,' says Sarah Stacey, a 33-year-old IT trainer, from Colchester. 'Living with fewer things might have been manageable pre-motherhood, but now? Impossible. It's not about who you are, it's about who you live with. My two-year-old Lucy, has accumulated far more stuff than any adult ever could. While there's the essential equipment that comes with having a toddler, there's also the mountain of toys people have kindly bought her and walls full of her paintings - how could I bin those?'

Find your true values

Sarah's dilemma is one shared by many when it comes to sentimental treasures. None more so than Naomi Timperley, a 39-year-old events organiser, from Cheshire. 'Six months ago, the idea of owning just 10 items would have brought me out in a sweat,' she says. 'My house was full to the rafters with all manner of stuff. I'd even kept the ashes of our two cremated cats, and the dried umbilical cords of my two children - gross, I know. But when I started working from home and my office/ kitchen was overflowing, I hired the services of a de-clutterer for £25 an hour. It was amazing to see the excess through someone else's eyes. Why did we have three sets of espresso cups when we don't even like coffee?'

As Naomi proves, many of us need a backside-kicking before we'll start slinging our stuff into black sacks. For Katherine Elphick, a 35-year-old website creator (, from London, that incentive was the birth of her daughter, Alice, now one. 'It wasn't that I lost my love of fashion when I became a mum, more that I realised my evening bags and designer dresses belonged to another lifestyle.

'I began selling stuff on eBay, setting my own challenge of listing 10 items a week. It felt cathartic to get rid of unused stuff, and it helped financially, too - I sold an Anya Hindmarch clutch for £100. Now, every book on our coffee table and every painting on our walls means something. A surplus of stuff makes me feel stressed and unfocused, while re-homing unwanted items gives me clarity and satisfaction.'

Katherine has hit the nail on the head in terms of answering that question about why to do a 10 (or 100) thing challenge. It's not simply about taking an anti-consumerist stance or tidying up your home. It's far more to do with clearing the mental fug that accompanies an overload of belongings. 'Many people surround themselves with stuff in order to have distractions,' says Max Kirsten, author of Self Help (Hay House, £10.99). 'Strip it down to 10 items and you're left with the pure, unadulterated you. Owning less is like going on a silent retreat. Spend some time living without the mask of possessions, and you will discover your true values.'

After Naomi's de-clutter blitz, she noticed that work productivity increased. 'Taking control of the mounds of paperwork gave me a sense of relief,' she admits. 'As well as being able to find things quicker, the sense of order means I'm focused and organized.'

'I can't live without...'

The next big question is how to choose 10 things for keeps? After all, don't they say that clutter is a pile of decisions waiting to be made? Hickman cannily picked a few multipurpose items, such as his mobile (doubles as a camera, calculator and clock) and his laptop: 'We can put our entire music collection, book shelf and family photos on to one hard drive. This allows me to avoid the tortuous Desert Island Discs-type decision-making about which albums or books to pick,' he says. To make the choice even easier, you ask yourself the three questions beloved of feng shui practitioners - is it useful? Is it loved? Is it kept in an orderly fashion? And don't get too hung up on what counts as one item. Bruno classed all underwear as one thing and allowed his tool kit immunity.

If you still can't see the method in this minimising madness, Marie-Claire Carlyle suggests simply writing a list of the 10 most treasured belongings you couldn't possibly part with. 'It's like that question - what would you save if your house was on fire?' she says. 'It forces you to be clear about what's important to you. You realise that you don't need as much stuff as you think. I used to put so much stock in material goods, but actually, if pushed I could survive with just my laptop, make-up bag, BlackBerry and my favourite painting. Everything else is transitory. It comes and goes and can be replaced.' So go on, try it. I've made a start by honing my handbag contents to 10, and haven't even missed my bobble, mirror or blotting powder.

5 Steps to 10 Things

Step1 Crystallise what your values and interests are by first writing a list of 10 things you'd save if your house were on fire. Alternatively, do the Desert Islands Discs quiz - what would you need if marooned somewhere remote.

Step 2 Of each item you are considering, ask yourself; 'Do I love it?' and 'is it useful?'

Step 3 Be sure to have a few multipurpose items in the mix. Good examples include a Swiss army knife (scissors, nail file, tweezers), a pashmina (shawl, blanket, sarong) Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream (soothes sunburn, moisturises, doubles as lip balm) and your mobile (camera, torch, alarm, currency converter).

Step 4 If you're a hoarder of nostalgia, pick just one thing to represent each person of life stage - you need only one child painting, one school report or one teenage diary, not dozens of each.

Step 5 Don't include essentials. Bruno and Hickman both allowed basic items of clothing, household utensils, furniture and all items shared with other family members to be exempt from the challenge. See our 10 things at...

Red Magazine - February 2011