Saturday, March 22, 2008

Small Space Saturday: Maximum Use Imperative

On Saturdays I write about strategies for living in 300 square feet

Over at Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project I learned today about a concept called the Maximum Use Imperative: people will often buy something to accommodate a use that they need only rarely. An often cited example is buying an SUV to be ready to haul a boat, drive off-road in the snow, and haul the entire soccer team to practice. There's only one problem with that decision process: the car is then not optimal for the way it is used 99% of the time.

Gretchen writes, "I’ve noticed that when making decisions, I tend to give too much thought to what I do ONCE IN A WHILE and not enough weight to what I do EVERY DAY. Shoes, for example. I wear running shoes 29 days out of 30 days a month, yet I have three pairs of black flats and only one pair of running shoes."

When living in the small space of an RV, it helps to be aware of this tendency and to consciously fight it. Storage is limited, and the added weight of unnecessary items affects mileage, wear-and-tear and safety of the vehicle.

Instead of buying or keeping something "just in case" or for the worst case scenario, ask yourself these questions instead:

Do I use it often?
If you're only pulling it out once a year, or you can't remember when you last used it, maybe this item has no place in your RV. Be cautious if your answer is, "But if x (where x is pretty unlikely) happens, then I'll be glad I kept it!" Exceptions might be holiday items like Christmas decorations that truly are used every year. But do you really need enough garlands for a 12ft. Douglas fir?

Is it a matter of life and death?
Health and safety items are among the few things that justify storing something "just in case." First aid kits, fire extinguishers, and emergency medicines fall into this category. Tools are vital when problems arise, but sort through them and keep only those that you really need. Screwdrivers? You bet. A dozen screwdrivers with every possible size tip? Probably not.

Is it rare/hard to find?
Spare parts for orphaned RVs, where the manufacturer has gone out of business, might be worth storing. (Ahem, not that Neoplan owners know anything about that.) Anything you can find at Napa Auto parts or Camping World probably doesn't need to be hauled around. Let those retail establishments store parts for you.

Do I love it? Is it irreplaceable? There are some items that we just want to hold onto, even if they aren't being used. Family heirlooms, photos, even a special childhood toy may hold a place in your heart that justify keeping them forever. But perhaps in those cases, you should consider renting a storage space for those items. Grandma's lace tablecloth is more likely to be ruined after 5 years in your RV (water leaks and dust seem inevitable!) and is probably too fancy to use on a picnic table. What if you loaned it to your daughter-in-law and visited it on New Year's eve?

Can I rent or borrow it?
Everything can be rented these days, from furniture to tuxedos, boat trailers to formal china. We need a car so rarely that we rent one when we do. Bake a cake once every three years? Your campground neighbor who bakes daily can loan you his pans. Another option is to buy rarely needed items at thrift stores, then donate them back when you are finished. Or buy, use, then sell on eBay.

Have I outgrown it?
Gaining weight is the obvious way to "outgrow" something. Does it really make sense to keep your "skinny pants" for several years on the off chance you'll slim down? If you're like me, by the time you lose those 20 lbs, the pants are out of style! Sometimes, though, it is harder to admit when you've emotionally outgrown something. In our mind's eye, we see ourselves as golfers, or kayakers, or quilters, or CEOs, so we keep our clubs, paddles, fabric and briefcase. But if you truly aren't hitting the rapids much anymore, perhaps it is time to let those items go.

Keeping things "just in case" is a natural human tendency. For those of us who travel and live in vehicles, though, the Maximum Use Imperative can lead to clutter, frustration and overweight axles. Think carefully about your choices and lighten your load.


  1. Louise, what a great list of questions! While your advice is especially important to those living in very small space such as RVs, it's also relevant to those living in larger spaces.

    I've seen people in large houses who find their clutter seriously interfering with their lives - and keeping "just in case" stuff is one of the reasons.

    Regarding your last point, Peter Walsh (in his book It's All Too Much) recommends asking yourself "Does this item enhance and advance the vision I have for the life I want?" Note the emphasis on NOW, rather than the past.

  2. Thanks, Jeri. I agree that it is not just people in small spaces that have too much stuff. In fact, it is the stuff that usually makes any space seem too small.

    I'm going to order the Peter Walsh book today. I've heard so many good things about it. I'll buy a used one on Amazon and when I'm finished with it, probably give it away!

  3. Louise
    I still want to write the book..."I only need 4 plates ...2 clean and 2 dirty"....what do you think??

    Shirley Lewis


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