The past few weeks I have found myself evoking my "Closet Theory" again and again, and for situations that I had never envisioned when I first developed it. Like the Theory of Evolution, I am realizing that Closet Theory is perhaps so profound that its applications will pop up everywhere you look. And like String Theory, it has the potential to unite some of the largest ideas of the day.
Closet Theory goes something like this:
The amount of stuff one accumulates is directly related to the amount of closet space one has.
Let me pause here to point out that the most profound ideas are those which are simplest.
Closet Theory first started to take shape in my psyche when I was moving homes. My wife and I moved from an apartment (one closet) to our home (nine closets) in just one trip with two cars. We didn't have much stuff. We later moved from that home to a townhouse (three closets) in a huge U-Haul after having rented a storage shed. We had lots of stuff. After just two years in the townhouse, we moved back to our home (three closets back to nine closets) with a couple of cars and a pickup truck and trailer. Much less stuff this time.
As I've looked at the world, a lot of things fall into the category of "stuff".
Time, for instance. Most of us do our best work, at least our most efficient, when we have some constraint on our time. Where we have no time constraint, things tend to slide and never really get done. A deadline defines the number of "closets" left.
I think computers work this way. I bought my first computer in 1992. A couple years later, I bought a "faster" computer only to find that the new programs for the new computer were bigger and took more power to run. Every time I upgrade it seems like things never actually work better or more quickly. My super-fast computer just fills up its capacity doing more stuff now. Bigger closet = more stuff.
In the physical world, traffic congestion works this way. It has been shown that, no matter how many highway lanes we build, traffic will increase to fill it. Free flow of traffic actually induces people to take more trips and locate their homes in areas a long ways from their work. Unfortunately with traffic you can't throw stuff away like you can with a closet. There is no garage sale that you can have to rid yourself of excess cars on the road, thus restoring extra room in the closet.
Another Closet Theory application I have used lately was when I was advising a community on hiring a new staff member. Bureaucracies tend to constantly add more stuff to fill the closet, thus the need for ever more bureaucracy. How many times have we seen a large bureaucracy that never seems to accomplish anything, yet the people working in the system seem overworked and burnt out. One of the hardest things for an elected official in a small town to do is prioritize the efforts of their staff. This is the natural role of a good administrator, which few small towns have.
So that is Closet Theory. I think the key to harnessing the power of it is realizing that we can put constraints on our own "closets", artificially making them smaller to bring about change in a system. That and also to be aware of how, by spending money to expand a closet, we may actually get less return than we would normally anticipate. More stuff is not always better, and having more stuff can have its own cost.