Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

 

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

Given that much of the KonMari method has already entered the public consciousness, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this book. Although I had expected it to serve as a how-to or even self-help book, I found a lot of value in taking it as a philosophical text. Kondō makes insightful points on materialism and presents a novel (to me) perspective on the purpose of tidying/maintaining tidiness. It can be tempting to view some of the practices she advocates, like asking whether or not things spark joy or thanking your belongings, as silly—hence the memes—but taking them in the overall context of the book reveals a fresh philosophy on how we can relate to our environment.

What is the purpose of tidiness? And of the objects that we surround ourselves with? In 1927, Le Corbusier answered, “A house is a machine for living in.” Even before I first heard this quote, I had already subscribed to a similar philosophy: the environment should be designed/organized to serve you, implying a service relationship between a person and their objects.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up not only re-imagines the potential of that relationship (“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”) but also establishes a convincing strategy for actually changing your life through revisiting the nature of this relationship. First of all, by going through the process of determining which of your objects spark joy, you train the muscle of actually discerning how you feel about things in general. The former allows you to create an environment filled with joy, while the latter gives you a new lens through which to view your career/relationships/etc. And secondly, by going through this process, our objects regain a sense of preciousness, which I think is really important in our Amazon Prime, fast fashion society. (Side note: this kind of reflection was one of the reasons I also found Princeton’s spring 2019 musical, We Were Everywhere, so thought-provoking and moving.)

Although I didn’t actually do a full KonMari Method declutter, the ideas underlying the method have stuck with me and are very much informing how I’m approaching e.g., decorating my new apartment. Overall, I really appreciated how this book caused me to reflect on the way my internal state affects and is affected by my external environment, and I highly recommend this book to folks interested in organization (and thinking about organization), as well as anyone looking to make a change in their life.

An anecdote about fear

Last September, I posted this status on Facebook:

What are some moments in your life that you look back on and think “Wow, I can’t believe I did that!”?

A few weeks ago—it feels like a lifetime ago! (before Reunions and graduation)—I traveled to Cancún with Elaine, Julian, and Andrea. It was really nice and, for the most part, a very relaxing trip. One of the non-relaxing things that we did was go to Cenote Tamcach-Ha, a water-filled sinkhole that features 5m and 10m diving platforms. I ended up jumping off of the 10m platform three times, which is really unexpected because I’m quite cautious by nature, and each time was terrifying in a different way. For reference, I’ve attached a video of the third jump below, trimmed to remove the 2+ minutes of stalling and hesitation before I actually gathered up the courage to jump.

 

 

Counterintuitively to me, the third jump was scarier than the first, because I knew what to expect—the moments of nothingness in free-fall were now known to me—and also because I put pressure on myself to resist my natural urge to curl up mid-air (which happened during my first jump, and which resulted in some very large bruising that only recently completely faded), since I knew what the consequences would be if I didn’t.

I still don’t really understand why I wanted to jump three times, but even in spite of the bruising, I’m glad that I did, because it allowed me to really notice and reflect on a few manifestations of my fear. I’ve been thinking about these jumps a lot recently, as I try and prepare for my upcoming travels and “adult life,” partially because I still can’t believe that it actually happened, but mostly to serve as a foil to the fear I feel around those areas of my future life.

In the past couple months, I’ve noticed myself feeling more scared about things that I feel like I wouldn’t have been scared of in the past. For instance, one thing that I’m really scared about right now is the 7-day silent meditation retreat that I’ll be attending in July. I find myself wondering if I can even do it (because of my scheduling constraints, I signed up for the advanced rather than introduction level retreat, and I’ve never meditated for that long before…) and feeling a lot of anxiety around the whole thing.

This doesn’t completely alleviate my anxiety, but when I remind myself of how I was able to overcome my fear and jump off of the 10m platform at Tamcach-Ha three separate times, I am also reminded that fear is designed to protect us, but it often holds us back. I knew I wasn’t going to die, but part of me was still convinced that I would, out of a self-preservation instinct.

I’m in a mindset right now where I want to optimize everything, and I think that part of that is that having (a perception of) control over the way things are going to turn out allows me to reduce feelings of uncertainty and makes me feel more safe. Although I feel frustrated at myself for having this urge (as well as many others, like suddenly caring a lot about conventional metrics of success), I acknowledge that my needs are behind it, and I’m trying to treat it as another opportunity for self-exploration and self-growth.   

P.S. After I posted this, I thought of this mantra from the P90X exercise videos I did in high school that that seems relevant: “Do your best, and forget the rest.”

Reflections on Princeton

For whatever reason, as more and more time elapses since commencement, I feel less and less motivated to write this blog post. (So I’ll focus more on content than on delivery haha.)

It’s so tempting to try to put my time at Princeton into a box by creating certain narratives about it. For instance, I definitely found myself getting sucked into the “best damn place of all” rhetoric during Reunions—and during graduation, feeling sentimental about/grateful for all of the relationships I cultivated (or wasn’t able to cultivate). But another challenge I have when I try to reflect on my undergrad is that it’s so difficult to separate everything that happened over the last five years from what constitutes my “Princeton experience.” In a way, it seems like everything that happened over the past five years needs to be understood against the broader context of Princeton. (Even my time away from school and the decisions that I made during my gap year were in reaction to it.)

Here are some of the categories that I feel like are significant in understanding the past 5 years and my thoughts on them.

Academics

One question that I’ve asked myself is “what did I actually learn?” And actually, I feel like I learned a lot. Although I’ve forgotten a good deal of content, I have learned a bunch of meta things and domain specific patterns, and know more about certain types of academic conventions. It’s weird though because getting better at things like “learning how to teach myself things” is a direct consequence of having poor instructors. I’m super grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about and be influenced by all sorts of disciplines, like architecture and acting.

“Regrets” / getting the “Princeton experience”

Regrets is in quotes because I’m trying not to believe in regret anymore. But there were many times at the end of my senior year when I felt some sadness about missed/forgone opportunities. (And actually right now, I’m realizing that those types of feelings come from wanting to optimize—having the “best” experience—which has been a toxic mindset for me.)

For instance, I never formed a close relationship to any of my computer science professors; I never went on a Broadway trip; I didn’t take a cool class that involved travel/once in a lifetime experiences; I never went inside every building on campus; I’ve never been to every eating club and co-op… These were some of the “regrets” that I fixated on but am no longer fixating on at this moment.

Disillusionment

I feel disillusioned about grades. What I came to realize was that there are specific and formulaic methods that people can use to be “successful” academically. For instance, going to office hours for help on a pset or assignment (or to develop a close relationship with your professor/TA), or making a specific and supported argument in a paper.

I also feel disillusioned to an extent about the extent to which the university supports its students. This was more personally salient to me during my first two years, but was reinforced later on through anecdotes and e.g., the Title IX protest.

Best damn place of all

I totally get this sentiment now. It’s easy for me to repress all the bad associations I have with this place because why would I want to relive those really hard times? And I do have so many positive memories associated with Princeton, and right now, I feel connected to other alums because of a weird sense of trauma bonding.

It was really hard

I honestly can’t believe/fathom how hard it was. I think it’s really easy for me to try to write off how hard it was after the fact, but I was under a lot of stress! I can point to my skin condition as an indicator of this. This past year, I’ve had more acne than I’ve had in years, and I’m pretty confident that it was my body’s outward manifestation of my internal stress. Looking back at the past couple years in particular, I am so amazed at how I was able to do all of the things that I did (which doesn’t even feel like that much, compared to other folks!!), and honestly I’m proud to have graduated.

Social

One of the best parts of Princeton was the people I met. (I would totally rewrite that to be less corny if I were focusing on delivery, btw.) I’m also really glad that I was able to experience the more conventional social scene this year, through attending and hosting pre-games and going to the street. Those were experiences that I wrote off my first three years, but I actually really appreciate them now. I still do wish there were more alternatives to those things, and more ways to meet new people on campus.

Growth

I am so grateful for all the ways I was able to change over the past five years. Many of those changes were not directly because of Princeton, but as I mentioned earlier, everything that happened can be seen as indirectly having happened because of Princeton. I do think that a lot of the challenging aspects of Princeton (e.g., architecturally enforced social isolation, geographic isolation, workload) did force me to grow, but I still don’t know if I agree with that type of parenting style.

Opportunities and privilege

Even though there were so many things that I didn’t take advantage of (see “Regrets”), I still had some really incredible opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere, especially getting funding to interview strangers and travel to China last summer. And to have gotten more resources and support to put on a solo show based on those experiences…wow… Also, I suspect that being a Princeton graduate will (unfairly) continue to afford me a bunch of privileges.

I understand what I didn’t before

When I started college, I remember struggling with trying not to care about grades, which seems like such an easy attitude now (maybe through exposure therapy). I think there are some lessons that are just too difficult to internalize until you go through experiences that force you to learn them. For instance, I didn’t understand until I started seriously thinking about life after graduation why people say that college is the best four years of your life.

If I had to do it all over again, would I?

This was a question on the senior survey that we had to fill out. I think that it would take a lot of conviction to say no, since that would be saying that you made the wrong decision and that you feel like the last several years of your life could have been better spent elsewhere. For me, there weren’t enough bad parts to make me say no. (Also, the teleological fallacy.)

On what makes people valuable, and feeling objectified

It took a while for me to be able to articulate what annoyed me about arguments along the lines of “everyone is smart/talented/skilled/beautiful in their own way,” but I eventually recognized that the thing that bothered me about those kinds of statements was their underlying logic—that everyone needs to be X or have X in order to have value. I think that trying to justify/prove those types of statements is a trap that a lot of people fall into in an attempt to be politically correct. I believe that it’s important to treat a human being’s value as an intrinsic and holistic quality, rather than something that is contingent on some quality they possess or don’t possess.

The reason why I bring this up is that I’ve been feeling objectified recently. This is part of the Wikipedia definition: “[Objectification] is part of dehumanization, the act of disavowing the humanity of others.” When I feel like people are—consciously or subconsciously—“valuing” me only for my external appearance, I feel like my worth depends on how I look, and that feels really bad. And it’s so dehumanizing because I am not just a body! I am a human being! In other words, I don’t want to be seen only for the way that I look.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about is how I present myself relates/doesn’t relate to me being objectified. Three years ago, I started dressing less conservatively (i.e., I started wearing crop tops), and have continued that ever since. Initially, this change came from a desire to not be seen/stereotyped as a passive Asian girl, and also to push myself out of my comfort zone. Since, changing my wardrobe has been an amazing catalyst for cultivating self-confidence and loving my body. But when I think about slut-shaming rhetoric like “if you don’t want to receive attention, then don’t dress provocatively,” I fall into the trap of blaming myself and the way I choose to present myself when I feel objectified. I’ve been trying to rewire that self-blame by reminding myself how easy it is for me to interact with others in multidimensional ways and to treat them as human beings.

Living with contradictions

I love consistency. I’m pretty sure the reason why is because my father was super inconsistent when I was growing up, and I really disliked it, so I went way in the other direction. But as with everything, it’s a blessing and a curse! One of the reasons loving consistency is great is because it’s easier for me spot inconsistencies in logic and thus learn faster. And one of the ways it has made life difficult for me is that, for a long time, I’ve struggled to resolve a bunch of internal inconsistencies, so that I can feel alright with myself.

One of the first things that made me realize that it’s not “wrong” to have internal contradictions is when I was starting character work for one of the people I interviewed over the summer (for my solo show!). She is an older woman, and I was confused about how to play both the silliness in her speech and her laughter, as well as the serious, high-achieving part of her. I told my advisor how frustrated I felt, because it was difficult! And she responded with something along the lines of, all these parts of this interviewee have been developed over her entire life, and although it may feel to me like they’re contradicting each other, there are reasons why they all exist.

More recently, my experience traveling to Mexico City (last week) has really allowed me to actually internalize the previous lesson. Around a year ago, I posted this status to Facebook:

I used to believe that it was important for people to learn about metaphors and analogies so that they could use them to understand abstract concepts and the world. Now I realize they’re important because you can use them to understand yourself.

I thought about that a lot this trip while I was walking around all the different neighborhoods. The architecture in Mexico City is beautiful—the colors were so inspiring to me!—and there are so many different styles, all on display next to each other. I don’t know what prompted this, but I asked myself, why is it that I love seeing two completely different buildings right next to each other, but strongly dislike seeing any kind of inconsistencies in myself? And that made me realize that people are just as complex as cities! And it reminded me that it’s fine to house internal contradictions (and it’s so natural to have them!!), because our lives are complicated processes, just like the inner workings of a city are.

One area I’ve been trying to apply this lesson to is my thinking around my body and appearance. The “contradiction” at hand is that your body is, on the one hand, just this physical vessel that contains “you,” but on the other hand, also the thing that lets you interface with the world and vice versa. So when your external state doesn’t match your internal state (dysmorphia), it can feel really bad because the part of you that the world sees doesn’t reflect the you that you feel like you actually are. For instance, this is why I want to have a sense of fashion that reflects my personality. But what I realized from applying the Mexico City metaphor is, while I can have that, it’s also totally fine for the clothes I wear to just be the clothes I wear. And also, I’m so complicated, and there’s no way that my clothing can always be expressing that! I’ve also been able to develop a lot more acceptance towards my acne, which has been something that has been really frustrating me for the past few months.

By not having to reconcile these contradictions—in a way, prescribing less meaning to things and just accepting them as a consequence of the complexity of myself and my life—I feel so much more at peace. (And of course, the journey is never over!)

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The importance of small things

I was reminded of how much of an impact small things can have on your life after I started using a new water bottle last week and saw my water consumption drastically increase.

This lesson was one of the first things that I internalized when I started studying design (and it probably goes without saying that it’s generalizable haha)—habits, physical objects, aspects of the environment, etc. can all have seemingly disproportionate effects, and not just in an emergent/gestalt sense.

For instance, there was a housing project in St. Louis known as Pruitt-Igoe that turned into a crime hotspot and was demolished around 20 years after completion, despite a ton of public enthusiasm and optimism for the plan. There were a bunch of factors that contributed to its decline, but one of the dominant ones was a design decision that had an unexpectedly large negative effect: to reduce elevator congestion, the elevators only stopped at certain floors, forcing residents to use the stairs in between certain floors. The number of residents sharing each stairway made it difficult to know which pedestrians were actually residents and which were intruders. And a lack of funding for building maintenance combined with the sheer amount of foot traffic also led to the stairways quickly falling into disrepair. Both of these factors contributed to the stairwells ultimately becoming sites of frequent muggings. In contrast, the Pruitt-Igoe apartments that “clustered around small, two-family landings with tenants working to maintain and clear their common areas were often relatively successful,” as were the adjacent Carr Village apartments.

This lesson is also embodied by the “For Want of a Nail” proverb.

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To go into more detail about my new water bottle, the story behind these three water bottles is that I realized in September that I’d been using the purple one for like 10 years(!!) and I wanted a new one, mostly because I really no longer liked its appearance. I ended up getting the pink BKR bottle as part of the Sunday Riley subscription box (which ended up not being a good purchase, btw), and used it for around 4 months before admitting to myself that I hated it. There were many annoying things about it: it was difficult to fully clean (because of the silicone ring in the lid), it got gross super fast (because you drink directly from the mouth), and it wasn’t super compatible with my water dispensing system (the opening is pretty small). All of those small inconveniences ultimately resulted in me drinking a lot less water, which I only realized after getting my new water bottle, which has been wonderful so far. It’s actually the most recent version as the purple water bottle (which yeah, if I used it for 10 years is probably pretty great/well-designed), and I totally recommend it if you’re looking for a new water bottle that is spill-proof, easy to clean, single-handedly operable, and see-through, and has a non-straw but still indirect method of drinking!

The life hack way of framing this lesson is that having the right tools/products/systems can be hugely enabling. Why make an aversive task more aversive by using the wrong tools/products/systems? Off the top of my head, here are some of the other ways I’ve made use of this in my life (aside from the small habits that I’ve already written about): having designated spaces for categories of things (e.g., organizational containers) to facilitate tidiness, purchasing a cushion for my desk chair so that my back can be upright while I work, having a meditation cushion and yoga mat readily accessible in my room (in general, associating physical locations with certain tasks/actions/ways of being) to encourage me to meditate/not be at my desk/stretch/exercise.

Best small-ish habits that I’ve adopted

I was trying to find a list of habits like this to inspire my New Year’s resolutions, but the ones I found online weren’t super helpful. (The only one that I found that I might adopt is to set a short timer in the morning for cleaning up.) So I decided to write a list of my somewhat easily adoptable habits that may inspire others.

  1. Having a consistent sleep schedule!! This has probably been the biggest game changer for me. Right now I’m sleeping 12:30-8:30. Since I usually don’t have anything until 11am most days, I get to indulge in a relaxed/relaxing morning routine that can help set the tone for the rest of my day. I hate the feeling of having to rush! Before adopting this habit, my sleep schedule was super irregular, and I would frequently stay up late and/or sleep for 10-12 hours. Some tips on how to get started:
    1. It may be helpful to start a new sleep schedule during a phase where you’re already transitioning anyways. For instance, after a vacation when you’re trying to get over jet lag or during a week where you have to get up earlier than usual.
    2. Melatonin in the evenings + caffeine in the mornings!
    3. Have an alarm clock that isn’t your phone, and get out of bed immediately after waking up. You can play music to motivate yourself to get out of bed.
    4. Have a yummy and easily prepared breakfast available that you will look forward to eating in the mornings. Eating breakfast is also a habit that I adopted this past year (after over 5 years of not eating breakfast), and I think it’s helped me a lot in terms of my overall health and well-being. I make congee overnight in a slow cooker, and eat that basically every morning with rousong and xiancai (pickled vegetables).
  2. Developing TAPs (Trigger-Action Plans) to help yourself not get stuck/get unstuck. This is helpful for both work and personal problems. Some things that I do when I feel stuck are
    1. Writing things down – forcing myself to explicitize what I’m having trouble with in a visual and tactile way. This is way more effective and easily implemented for me than traditional rubber ducking and provides an easy transition into working out the rest of the problem on paper either through words or diagrams.
    2. Journaling/video journaling – I like doing this even outside of feeling stuck, but I think this is super helpful in allowing you to work through latent thoughts, feelings, memories, etc. to better understand yourself. I also have been really enjoying watching my video journals after the fact.
    3. Taking walks – I also like doing this outside of feeling stuck. Sometimes it’s just most helpful to just get a change in context, and taking walks is also a good motivation for me to get outside (particularly when the weather isn’t great). Having a designated time where I don’t have to be thinking about anything at all creates a mental space where things that are on my subconscious mind can emerge, and when I return, I’m usually in a more positive mental space.
  3. Staring at the ceiling/sky – I have to admit that sometimes I can get addicted to my phone. In response to that, I made a New Year’s resolution to stare at the ceiling/sky/ground for at least 5 minutes a day, and I’ve done it every day so far. This is really helpful because I think part of the reason that phones are so addicting is because they rewire your response to doing nothing from just being bored to checking social media/etc. Forcing myself to stare at the ceiling at some point during the day gives the other option (of being bored) back to me. I think it’s also a great opportunity to rest your eyes.
  4. Pomodoros – pomodoros have been so helpful whenever I need to get work done, and they allow me to easily plan and set goals for how much work I want/need to get done. I already wrote a blog post about pomodoros that goes more in depth, but I want to add here that getting up/away from your work station during breaks is crucial.
  5. Regular self-expression – I just feel better when my internal state can be externalized. For me, this entails picking out an outfit and putting on makeup that captures my mood. Even if I’m just planning on being in my room most of the day, I still think doing this is important. I seriously don’t know what I’ll do when I have to work in an office environment!
  6. Taking nootropics – I don’t know a ton about this, but it’s been helpful for me to be aware that sometimes my internal state has to do with biological (?) factors. For instance, I have a vitamin D deficiency, so I take supplements of that (which I feel helps with my mood and overall health), and when I’m tired, I’ll drink a caffeinated beverage alongside a pill of L-theanine.

 

With all that being said, one of the most effective ways I’ve found to change my mental state (or get out of a rut) has been to break my routine in some way. For instance, going a day without my phone, working from a different location, listening to new music, or (inadvertently) being super tired and drinking caffeine.

Kilroy was here

I fluctuate between wanting to obsessively chronicle everything, and hating getting photos of myself taken + trying to “live in the moment.” In case it’s not super obvious by my recent blog posts, right now I’m in the former state, after maybe a few years in the latter.

I’ve realized that the desire to make an impact on the world can manifest in smaller ways than a choice of career path, like when I went on vacation and realized that the only/main way I could “leave a mark” on a place that felt meaningful and transformative to me was to take a bunch of photos. I don’t think that’s the main reason other people take photos in a place, but I also know that I’m not alone in wanting to touch the places and things and people that have touched me. (That’s why Kilroy existed! That’s probably also a big reason why this blog exists…)

Part of this shift is probably me getting older, and more than that, being on the precipice of another major shift in my life (college graduation). In 2014, the year I graduated from NCSSM and started my freshman year at Princeton, I set a goal to post a photo every day so I could remember what I thought would be an eventful year in my life. I don’t know if 2014 was particularly more eventful than the years following it, but I looked back on the photos recently and felt a huge wave of nostalgia. The gestalt of a photo album or subset of one can really capture the feeling of life at the time. And for someone who has a bad memory of her past self, reviewing the photos reminded me that I wasn’t as bad as I thought 🙂. This is all to say that one of my 2019 New Year’s resolutions has been to make a similar photo album (I found out yesterday that you can add videos as well!) as another time capsule that I can review later.

Everything is connected

(More stream of consciousness than my usual blog posts, inspired by some poetry I’ve been reading and life!!!)

Things that you do are not isolated. This is why small things can have big effects. Like parenting. And also proving things to yourself.

That’s why I like taking walks so much. Everything is a metaphor. The cliché of the journey is more important than the destination. That’s why I do weird things on my walks too, like turn around abruptly, walk backwards, skip, sing, etc.

I know this is true because I’ve seen the effects of standing up for myself in one area of my life manifest in others.

Julia’s tips and strategies for gift-giving

I love buying presents for other people and would consider myself pretty good at it too. Gift-giving is one of my love languages 😊. For some reason, my mom finds buying presents really difficult and is pretty bad at it, so I wanted to write this post to teach my mom and other people who aren’t good at gift-giving the heuristics that I use. This post is going to be a combination of theory, tips, and general strategies, rather than me listing specific gift ideas.

To begin, what is a present (i.e., what distinguishes it from something you would buy for another person in a normal context)? And what are you trying to accomplish by giving this person a present? I think it’s really important to think through these questions for yourself before starting the process of picking a present.

Here are my answers: I think a present is a combination of both the present itself (e.g., a physical object, a future experience) and the symbolic gesture that is your giving of the present. The symbolic gesture is a token of your understanding of the recipient and their needs. For me, that’s the most important part of a present—the feeling of being deeply considered for by someone else, which is embodied in the idiom “it’s the thought that counts.” For others (like me in middle school), the symbolic gesture isn’t as important, so they may be perfectly happy with receiving gift cards or straight up cash, for instance. A lot of other characteristics that I associate with good presents, like that they should be a surprise (i.e., not asking someone what specific thing you should buy for them) and that they should be special, come from this notion. One consequence of this is that I would rather receive a present that I don’t like that demonstrates thought and consideration (and that can be returned) than a present that I do like that I had to pick out myself. I’m not sure how many other people feel this way though!

With respect to the second question, I’m almost always trying to find a present that the recipient will use, and will be happy about receiving. The other positive outcome, that I’m sometimes fine with, is that they’re “not mad at” the present.      

Ok, so now that we’ve established a framework, we can move on to the actual tips and strategies. I would say that there are three general categories of presents:

  1. Things that person already needs – something that they already use or have, and need a new one of (e.g., skincare products, a replacement favorite pair of jeans or perfume, new pens or journals, gourmet food items). To figure out what these things are, just examine the “perishable” items that person regularly uses. For people you don’t know that well, this category could be difficult, especially since timing may be crucial.
  2. Things that person already wants – something that person is actively wanting but aren’t purchasing for themselves for some reason (e.g., an item that is out of their budget, something that they can’t justify purchasing, a new version/brand of something they already have). To figure out what these things are, you mostly will need to pay attention for repeated verbal/written cues. You could also examine their browsing behavior while shopping in person or online to see what items they want but aren’t purchasing for some reason. This category may also be difficult for people you don’t know well, but some people do post their wishlists online.
  3. Things that person would need/want – something that fills an existing or future need, and may be frivolous in some way (e.g., a portable power bank if their phone is always out of battery, a voucher for a new activity). To figure out what things in this category are, you should keep an eye out for signs of any needs that aren’t getting filled or filled adequately. This may come in the form of them complaining to you about a problem that they have (e.g., “Sorry I’m late, I can never find my car keys!”, “My neck has been really hurting recently”) or other things that you notice (e.g., this person is always complimenting this thing that I wear, this person likes to watch Popin’ Cookin’ videos on YouTube). From there, you can pick any item that can address that need or potential desire. I generally prefer to buy presents in this category, since it requires you to have a better (predictive) model of the person, and I feel like I can demonstrate the most care this way. Also it’s more fun for me! But I think this category is also the easiest to buy a “not bad” present for people you don’t know well.

These categories are just to guide your thinking, and I think they’re especially useful to consider in conjunction with your budget, because they can help you narrow your focus. For instance, if the person doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on themselves, buying them something that they already need is a nice way to guarantee that they’ll actually use the thing that you buy them. Alternatively, if they like to spend money on themselves, they probably don’t have that many things that they actively want that are in your budget, unless you’re a lot wealthier than they are.

Other tips and strategies:

  1. Think about general categories (things that person likes, hobbies they partake in, stereotypes about that person or their relationship to you). Sometimes it can be helpful to look up lists online to get your juices flowing. For instance, I don’t know much about middle-schoolers these days, but Googling “presents for middle school girl” can help me get a sense of potential ideas.
  2. Don’t feel like you have to buy them something in a specific domain, especially if you’re not familiar with that domain yourself. People like receiving all sorts of things, and you should be able to find a domain that you know something about that they would enjoy receiving a present in; it could even be something tangential. For instance, I don’t know anything about video games, but I do know about ergonomics.
  3. If you can’t afford to buy a present, or would prefer to give one that’s more “thoughtful,” then making something by hand is a really nice gesture. For instance, you could write a heartfelt letter or make a video of you sharing some of your favorite memories with that person. This could be accompanied by something small (e.g., flowers, candy, mini-sized products) if you want the present to seem more substantial.
  4. If you’ve given them presents in the past, it may be helpful to take a look at how those presents were received, and whether or not they were used. This can help you update on what categories of presents they prefer, and what areas they may be too difficult to shop for. For instance, if you buy them something you thought they would want but they end up not using it, it may be a sign that they’re very discerning about items in that category, and it would be easier to buy them a different kind of thing.
  5. The more time you have to think about what to get them, the better! This not only allows you to do more in depth investigations, but you can also be more discerning about the specific product you want to buy, and also potentially when and where to buy it. Who doesn’t love a good deal? You can either save money or buy the recipient more things for the same amount that you would have spent otherwise.
  6. If you can’t think of something specific, a subscription box for whatever they’re interested in is a present that they probably wouldn’t be mad about receiving. There are all sorts of subscription boxes nowadays, like ones for food, lifestyle, books, etc., and they’re available at many price points.

I’ve never really formalized my intuitions about gift-giving before, so there are a bunch of other considerations that I make that I am probably omitting. But I hope this helps some of you, and I may make an updated post (maybe with case studies) at a later date.