Owning less stuff

Friday 25th November 2016

We're off to Spain for new adventures in a couple of weeks, and we've spent the last three months sorting our possessions into the four S's: ship, store, sell or skip. It's easy to gradually acquire new things and each of the four times I've moved house I've watched the pile grow.


When I went to university in 1995, everything I took fitted in my parents' car along with me and them. I had a duvet, a hi-fi, a bunch of CDs, a few pots and pans and some particularly colourful clothes. Let's say it was about a cubic metre in total. A large packing box, 63cm on a side, is one-quarter of a cubic metre so four of those boxes make up a cubic metre like this:

Looking back now, I marvel at how simple my life was, even though I lost many nights' sleep worrying about it at the time! 


When Kat and I moved to Brighton after graduating in 1998, we hired a transit van to move into a one bedroom flat. We had a double bed, a sofa, a TV, more clothes (still pretty colourful), a lot more cookware and loads more CDs. We had about four cubic metres of possessions. 

A year later we moved into a three bedroom flat and over the next five years we filled it with stuff. 


When we decided to live abroad for a bit, we took stock of the flat and realised for the first time just how much stuff we had. I estimate it totalled about 25 cubic metres: beds, sofas, chests of drawers, a dining table and chairs, fridge, washing machine, a full set of kitchen equipment, garden furniture, a wall of books and even more CDs.


We sold or gave away a bunch of it, and made two trips back our parents' lofts to store the things we couldn't bear to part with. We were back down to about 15 cubic metres. I know this because when we came back two years later we managed to fit it all in a 3.5t Luton van. 


In the nine years since then we've really upped our game.


We currently live in a five bedroom house, and the thing about big houses is that you have to fill them with stuff or they look empty. We added more beds, a giant dining table and chairs, a work shed full of tools, a home office, dressers, more sofas, two kayaks, a sailing boat and four bicycles. And for some reason we still had a mountain of CDs in the loft, even though we didn't even unpack them from the boxes last time we moved.

I worked it out to be in the region of 55 cubic metres, which means we could pretty much fill an HGV with all our stuff. 

How did this happen? 

There's no way this would all fit into our parents' lofts again, and the more we looked at all the things we'd bought the less we liked them. As Tyler says in Fight Club, the things you own end up owning you. I was drowning in things and I hadn't even noticed. 

We started off a little hesitantly - we gave away two of our bicycles and I sold my vintage computer collection on eBay (I love eBay). We became bolder and donated all our CDs to a local community radio station.

Gaining confidence, we compiled a complete spreadsheet of everything in the entire house and categorised it into ship / store / sell / skip. Everything marked skip was piled up outside the back door and taken to the dump. 

We stored about two transit van loads in Kat's parents' loft (thanks guys!) back in September. There were lots of photo albums and some furniture that Kat commissioned, but looking back on it now I can't remember what's in most of those boxes. 

There was a lot of overlap between ship, store and sell, and it was tricky to identify items that we were happy to sell and definitely didn't want. We arranged a date for a moving sale in September, sorted through drawers and cupboards and the loft (OMG, the loft), stuck bargain price tags on everything and opened our doors. 

Reactions from purchasers varied, but the most common question was always "aren't you going to miss this?" as they held one of our dozen kitchen knives or a handful of books that I'd forgotten we even owned. And as the day wore on I realised that I really wouldn't. 

By the end of the day we were exhausted, but feeling lighter and freer than I've felt in years. What a liberating experience! 

Kat and I have spent the last few months talking about our new plans for a cut-down life.

We're both really keen to try living in a smaller house, so we don't have the pressure of filling a big home with stuff.

We'd like to be more carefree with possessions, buying second hand and then selling on, rather than buying new and keeping it. 

Are you excited by the idea of a serious declutter? Does it fill you with fear? Leave a comment below!



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Friday 15th July 2016

We've just come back from a week's visit to Valencia, looking for a place to live for a few years. We've identified five areas that we like, and need your help to decide where to live! Each area has plus and minus points, both from a housing point of view, location and how well it would suit the dog.

This last one is an important consideration for us, and has occupied at least 50% of the time we've spent thinking about where to live.



Benimaclet used to be a separate town that was swallowed by the city many years ago, but still has its own identity. A lot of signs here are in Valencian, the local language which has a lot of similarities to Catalan (although the locals would snarl at you if you say that) and it has a nice community feel, even its own website!

It's home to a lot of students who attend the university a short walk to the east. It's well connected by metro and bus, but parking might be a bit of an issue if we decided to buy a car. It's a twenty minute walk into the city from here, so we wouldn't necessarily need one.

The kind of place we'd like to rent here is a 4 bedroom house for €950 a month like this rather beautiful example. There are some nice quiet streets near to the town square and church.

From Stanley's point of view this is okay - he'd get a small yard or garden to lounge in, most of his walks would be in the city but it's not too far to the Turia Gardens for a long off-lead walk.



Slightly further out from the city than Benimaclet, Alboraya feels much more like a town in its own right with a population of about 25,000. It's separated from the city by a large swathe of low-intensity farm land, criss-crossed by running and bicycle paths.

We visited during one of the town's many fiestas, where they carried a shrine of the Virgin Mary through the town in what seemed to be a mock funeral, complete with a dozen mourning ladies in black.

We would get more for our money out here with a 3 bedroom house with a small garden going for €800 to €1000 a month (like this example), but we'd probably need a car to get about. There are two metro stations serving the town, but most evenings the metro stops by 11pm so if we went into the city for the evening we'd need to drive home. It's probably an hour's walk into the city from here, or a fifteen minute bike ride. It's still in the central metro zone.

Stanley would be pretty happy here: he'd have a nice garden, some larger paved areas for walks and a big chunk of farmland to walk around off-lead. The only thing really lacking is water for him to splash about in.


El Cabañal

Flanked on the east side by the beach and busy port, this part of the city is fascinating but not without its problems. In the 1990s the city government started a plan to extend one of the largest avenues down to the coast, through the middle of this neighbourhood. The residents naturally fought back, and the struggle continues to this day. What it means practically is that a lot of the housing in this area is rather run down, because landlords don't want to spend money renovating houses that may be demolished. Consequently there are a lot of poorer families living here, but also a lot of hipster types who take advantage of the cheap rentals on offer. There's a metro station or a walk of 20 minutes into the city.

We could get a lot for our money here too, with a 3 bedroom house in one of the nicer streets going for €850 per month (like this example). We wouldn't need a car day-to-day, but there's loads of parking on the streets so it might be worthwhile.

This isn't ideal from Stanley's point of view: there's quite of bit of rubbish in the street and some broken glass here and there. Most of his walks would be in the streets, or up and down the boardwalk at the beach - dogs aren't allowed on this beach.



Located twenty minutes out on the metro, Godella is definitely its own town. If we lived here we'd spend most of the time in the town, and only visit Valencia city from time to time. It's in zone B of the metro which makes it a little more expensive to get into the city. It's the most upmarket of the areas we like with some stunningly beautiful houses and villas which cost a little more - say €900 a month for a four bedroom house and garden with a swimming pool, like this example.

We'd definitely need a car to get around. It also has the novelty of not being completely flat, although these aren't hills by Cornish standards. There are a higher number of expats out here, and I don't think we'd have problems making friends but we'd definitely feel like we were out of the city.

Stanley would be pretty happy here: he'd have a good sized garden and some parks to play in close by. Still not a lot of water though.



Turia Park

The odd one out among our choices, this isn't one neighbourhood but a long sweeping arc, following a park through the centre of the city.

The Turia river used to flow through the middle of the city, and was famous for flooding. After a particularly bad flood in the 1950s the city government diverted the river to the south and turned the riverbed into one of the most beautiful parks I've ever visited. In fact its one of our main reasons for moving to Valencia.

Renting a house in this part of the city is out of the question; there aren't any. Our preferred option would be to rent a top-floor apartment with a roof terrace, which are a bit more expensive than houses we've looked at in other areas, typically going for €900 per month for a 4-bedroom apartment, like this example. We wouldn't need a car day-to-day because we're right in the middle of the city, so we'd have to rent one if we wanted to travel.

I don't know what Stanley would make of this: the roof garden might freak him out a bit, but he'd absolutely love the Turia Park. It's the only one of the options that allows him to mess about in water regularly, which is very important to him.



Here's a table summarising all of this:

Area Location Housing quality Housing cost
(more stars = cheaper)
Stanley's opinion
El Cabañal



Which area do you prefer?

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Language learning

Friday 3rd June 2016

In preparation for new adventures in Spain I've been brushing up on my Spanish and discovered how much language learning has changed since the last time I did it.

I took GCSE Spanish in 2002 but have spent more time in France than Spain since then. My Spanish had become really rusty and I found that the words I used a lot on holiday in France dislodged the same word in Spanish that I used to know.

I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but I think of it as a big wall of orange Spanish bricks where some of them have been pushed out and replaced with blue French bricks.


Why orange and blue?

There's probably a whole other blog post to do with colour associations of different items: semi-skimmed milk, salt and vinegar crisps, and Italian are all green. Who decided that these items were these colours and why?

Anyway, we started a Spanish evening class and it's going really well, but the class is focussed on grammar and syntax and I was seriously lacking vocabulary. One of the other students in the class recommended Duolingo and it's blown my tiny mind.



¡Hola Duolingo!

Duolingo is a free language learning website and app, designed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011 and used by 120 million people across the world.

It brings gamification (a system that could have been designed just for me) to language learning. It prompts you every day to do a bit of practice, and rewards you for a little bit of interaction every day.

There are four types of interaction: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The speaking part still needs a bit of work: it struggles to understand Kat and it helps if you speak in a deeper voice.

Some of the phrases it teaches are very strange: in the last few weeks it's made me laugh with the phrases Es seguramente mi elefante (it's probably my elephant) and Estoy en el programa de protección a testigos. That's witness not testicles as I first assumed, although I am also in the testicle protection programme.

Someone has collected all these weird phrases into a great video.


¡Aquí viene la ciencia!

The Spanish module is broken down into 65 discreet blocks, such as Food, Animals and The Subjunctive. It's structured so that you have to pass the simple modules before you can learn the harder ones, but there are two genius concepts:

  1. It keeps track of which words you've seen and predicts how often you need to see those words to keep them in long term memory
  2. You can compete with friends even if you're learning different languages

The combination of these two things means that I've been using it for about half an hour a day for the last hundred days, and I've become so much better at Spanish in that short time. I'm also beating all my friends who are using it too! Did I mention that I'm a little competitive?

As of today Duolingo reckons I've got 2,362 Spanish words lodged in my long-term memory and I'm 40% fluent.

It's taken the language learning world by storm. Studies suggest that 34 hours learning on the system is equivalent to 55-60 hours using the competitor tool Rosetta, or 130+ hours on a college course.


No es sólo para los idiomas

This kind of system isn't just being used for languages though.

A friend told me about another website called Memrise which applies the Duolingo concept to learning pretty much anything.

I took their 100 Questions You Simply Must Be Able to Answer course, because the weekly pub quiz is a major part of my life. It was a weird experience.

Memrise isn't as good as Duolingo, but after 90 minutes I felt like someone had just forced a hundred new facts into my brain whether I wanted them or not.

Now I know without even having to check that the Humphry Davy invented the miner's safety lamp (not Tony Blackburn) and discovered sodium, the first ever FA cup final was held in 1872, and the first space shuttle to launch was Columbia.

I'm not even sure that I want all these facts in my brain, but they're there. We'll see how long they stay for.


El futuro del aprender

This experience has made me think about how slowly my brain learns normally, and how many times I need to be exposed to a word or fact for it to stay in my brain forever. But on the other hand, intense experiences are recorded vividly forever.

For example, Duolingo has told me dozens of times that compromiso means committment, but I still answer compromise every time I see it. But I can recall with crystal clarity the accident where I wrote off my parent's car when I was 17.

Why is that? Respuestas en un postal a la dirección habitual, por favor.



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Friday 26th February 2016

It's always fascinated me that most people take as long to buy a pair of jeans as a house. Is there a fixed amount of time that we're willing to consider making a choice, or is it just easier to buy a home?


How do you make decisions?

I have friends who agonise over the smallest decision, buying What Hi-Fi for six months before choosing a new set of speakers, and others who buy the first car they see because they like the colour.

Others have never had a successful relationship because they're always looking for the perfect partner, and those who settled down for life with the first person they met.

There are loads of articles on the web to help you make decisions, and even software to do it for you.

I seem to make the right decisions a lot of the time without really knowing how to go about it. 

Decision paralysis goes back centuries, even appearing in Aesop's fables. The most common way to resolve it is to artificially limit your choices.

I've always joked that Kat is vegetarian because she doesn't like too much choice on a menu, but she genuinely seems overwhelmed when we go to veggie restaurants.


Don't overthink the question

This is the mantra for our pub quiz team. If the question is "Which is the only gem stone that isn't mined from the ground" don't argue about whether the answer might be Moldavite, just write down pearls and move on.

This is the Centipede's Dilemma a lovely poem by Katherine Craster from 1871:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

Quick decisions

Here's a quick test to see how you do at making decisions quickly. You'll be shown several stacks of coins, and you need to click on the stack which is the most valuable.

The test involves your ability to make the right decision quickly, so you haven't got time to add them up - take your best guess.


Question 1/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 2/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 3/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 4/5

Click the stack of coins which is the highest value.

Question 5/5

This is the last one.


Thanks for taking part!

You got 0 out of 5 right in 0 seconds.


More complex decisions

As an example, we're currently looking to move to Spain for a year or two, for a new adventure. But Spain's a big place, and so we artifically narrowed it down to the east coast because I want to be near the sea.

We flew into Malaga and drove up to Barcelona. We made notes about every town and city we passed through, and gave each one a score out of ten. The icons on the map below go from red (<4 points) through orange (5 points), yellow (6 points) and into green (7+ points). The map is interactive if you want to see where we went and what we thought about it.

But as it turned out, we didn't need to do this. As soon as we arrived in Valencia, we both decided that this was the place. We were just over half-way through the trip, but it just felt right.


Go with your gut

The more I read about decision making, the more I understood that the basic rules are to evaluate the options and then go with the one that feels right to you. Obviously this doesn't apply to some decisions, like air strikes against Daesh, which need a bit more debate. But most of your day-to-day decisions, and a number of the larger ones, can be done just going with your gut.

I've started applying this philosophy to my life and it's really working out well! I was in the Co-op trying to work out whether I wanted sausages, chicken or prawns for dinner. I realised that I kept glancing back at the prawns, and they were delicious.



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