Cleaning House–Saving Memories, Losing Junk

March 20, 2007

Being surrounded by out of date possessions slows the mind and drags down the spirit. It is easy to get lost in them.

The easiest approach is to store them somewhere, the attic, basement, or garage. Increasingly people are renting external storage space, at significant expense to store junk. A recent statistic indicated that twice as many families rent external space now than ten years ago. Interestingly, professional organizers often advise against renting external storage space. Once that sink hole opens, there is no turning back.

At some time though, it’s time to move or just dig out. Then, it may be difficult to distinguish items which have real economic or sentimental value from outdated stuff. Here are some ways to get a grip on the situation.

1. Sentimental Objects.

The joy of these objects is in the occasional discovery and the memories triggered by them. Keep the emotion of discovery alive, even if the object is not kept.

Most sentimental objects are stored out of sight and only occasionally rediscovered. It is the discovery, not the use that is the fun. But you can keep the possibility of discovery alive. Use that digital camera to take pictures of all these sentimental items before they make their way out. Burn a few disks and send them to the family members. They can stuff the disk in their drawers and every now and then stumble across it with pleasure. Actually, more people may share in the delight of discovery

Some of these items can never be used again, like the stuffed animals that have gotten musty or are now recognized as dirty. Others could have great value for people right now. Find these a new home.

2. Select Rather than Sort.

Select from scratch. A key question is: “Would you select this item if you did not already own it?” It may be nice to have, but would you actively choose it now? Suddenly many items become expendable. Why find a new place for something you would not choose?

Usually, people tend to sort through things into keepers and junk. This sorting approach favors keepers since the criteria for declaring something junk is much higher. Selecting is a more efficient process.

3. Assess Usefulness and Value.

There are so many things that might come in handy someday and are worth something. This stuff surrounds us. However, when the items are viewed in terms of the chance that they will actually be needed and the replacement cost, it becomes easier to shed these items.

Books are a good example. They just accumulate. Some are extraordinary and we will always want them around. Others, particularly gifts, have little interest but take their place on the shelves. If you look at a hundred books on your shelf, pick the ten best. Then select out the obvious losers for discard. There may be upwards of half in the gray area. The first instinct is to keep them. After all, there is some chance that you may want to reread a few of them at some indeterminate time in the future. There are two things to keep in mind. First, used books are much easier to replace than in the past. Almost any used book can be obtained relatively inexpensively over the web. So the real value of the books we may use again is really only a few dollars. As many as 90% of the books can be let go without much potential cost.

And clothes. If the clothing has not been worn in a couple of years, the question to ask. “When would this be worn again?” Without a specific answer, it can be let go.

If all of the items that have a small probability of being used again are grouped together, the pile is large. In fact however, there may only be a small expense in replacing those few items that will actually be needed again in the future.

A realistic view of probability of use against replacement cost changes the balance and allows the large amounts of marginal stuff to go.

These guidelines can help to clean house and make mood lighter and faster.

Two Monks and a Woman–Story

March 13, 2007


The story of Two Monks and a Woman is a very well known Zen story. There are many versions of it, but the origin is not clear.

Here, this story can both stand alone and also provide a different perspective to the post immediately below this one (Eliminating Mental Bias Decision Errors).

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”


The older monk, his mind free, saw the situation, responded to it, and continued to be present to the next step after letting the woman down.

The younger monk was bound by ideas, held on to them for hours, and, in doing so, missed the experiences of the next part of the journey.

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (

Reference to Decision Making:

Mental attachment to an idea or earlier experience blocks the full experience of the present here and now. Attachments slow the mind, interfering with appropriate responses to the immediate situation.

In order to evaluate a situation requiring a decision, the mind must be open to the possibilities. Being anchored in the past restricts the choices. Examples of holding on, outlined in the Mental Bias post, are favoring current conditions and giving disproportionate weight to old information.

The mind cannot will itself to be free. There are methods to calm the activity of the mind in order to be more open. The first step is to develop awareness.

Eliminating Mental Bias (Cognitive) Decision Errors

March 5, 2007

“The decision made sense at the time.

How did we get stuck with such a bad result?”

Good decisions look forward to the future in an unbiased way. However, human decision makers tend to hold to the present and their individual perspective. The unrecognized clash of these two facts often leads to a mediocre decision and poor results.

In order to increase the likelihood of making the best decision in the future, watch for this clash. The first step toward improvement is become aware of these biases. Then, deliberately make an effort to change behavior in order to compensate for them.

Here are five specific examples of mental biases followed with suggestion actions to compensate and help make a better decision.

Examples of holding to the present.

1. Giving disproportionate weight to the first information received.

The initial set of facts, by virtue of their familiarity, tend to be reassuring. Consequently when additional information is received, the new information is evaluated against a higher standard and may not be properly considered. Make the effort to fully value the new information.

2. Favoring choices that allow current conditions to continue.

The status quo also has its familiarity. There is often pressure to continue with the current path. It is important to value the current situation objectively. Question if the current situation, evaluated on its own merits, would be selected now or continued.

3. Favoring choices that justify previous decisions or actions.

There is a tendency to make choices that confirm previous actions, even if the earlier decisions or actions were flawed. This bias can lead to a compounding of errors and a deteriorating situation. It is particularly important to guard against this bias since the negative consequences can be so severe. An opinion from someone not involved in the previous actions can serve to provide objective balance.

Examples of Individual Perspectives.

4. Selecting Confirming Evidence.
It is natural to favor information that supports the individual view. It is very easy to ignore, or not fully evaluate, information that does not fit well into one’s perspective. Make the effort to ensure that all the information is being examined fairly. Allow others to fully evaluate all the facts.

5. Asking the decision question in a distorted way.

Very often, the questions leading to a decision are posed in a misleading way that emphasizes one preferred direction. Then, the discussion follows the logical consequences of the biased question. Check to see if the question has been properly formulated in a neutral way and revise if necessary.


It is important to keep in mind that the above five examples of mental bias are simply behavior habits. Such habits only contribute to a poor decision when people are not aware of them. Watch for these tendencies and make adjustments when possible. It is far more rewarding to catch these behaviors as they happen rather than deal with a poor result influenced by mental errors.

Other articles in this series can be found by clicking the Thinking /Perception Skills category in the right box or through the links below:

(2) Use of Working Theories

(3) Listening for Consequences

(4) Put Aside the First Idea




These types of decision errors can often be traced to the tendency to mentally hold on to old ideas that interfere with appropriate responses to the present situation. A different perspective to this type of attachment can be seen in the Zen story Two Monks and a Woman.