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Practical Takeaways from Running Our Garage Sale


Recently my family, through energetic effort, ran a garage sale from our home in a semi-rural part of Vermont. Running that sale taught me some useful lessons in best (and worst) garage sale practices, and especially seeing as I don’t expect to want or need to run another one any time soon, I’m passing this information on in hopes that it will be useful to you.

I’ve talked in the past about getting rid of things we don’t need and about the personal and emotional side of garage sales. This post, by contrast, is about simple, pragmatic stuff.

We aren’t exactly in a high-traffic area, and the sale was only modestly successful, but it was a useful and necessary step to clearing out a lot of things we’d identified we didn’t need. In the weeks since, we’ve been donating items to appropriate places, putting them up on eBay, and both selling and giving them away through Craigslist. We’re getting close to the end of the process, which is exciting: that will mean we’ll have our garage back, just in time for winter, and I’ll be more clutter-free than I’ve been in many a year.

Signage is essential
Signs were especially important for our sale because our house isn’t visible from the road, and because the road we’re on isn’t a busy one. Accordingly, I made the extra effort to make five sets of signs: one at the intersection with the nearest large road, two directing people down our road from the medium-sized roads that connect with it, one at the end of our driveway to direct people in, and one at the fork in our driveway so that people wouldn’t end up at our neighbor’s house instead (we share a driveway with our neighbors). All of that appears to have been good thinking: I think we needed those signs to guide people in.

Unfortunately, the signs I initially put up had not one, not two, but three significant problems:

  1. They were too small
  2. They had too much information on them, making for small print and too much to read while driving by
  3. The poles they were mounted on weren’t strong enough

I got some poles that looked much sturdier than they turned out to be, and it was a windy weekend, so my signs were sometimes getting blown over. I ended up going out and reinforcing several of the sign setups, but even then it turned out that a key sign was down for the entire sale, which probably lost us a number of customers.

The signs were small because I tried to get away with what I could easily make with a standard printer, and I used 8.5″x14″ paper. What I needed instead were big, bold signs that listed the days, the times, and had an arrow pointing in the right direction with the words “garage sale.” I added some bigger signs for the second day, which helped a little, but I believe that big, clear signs that wouldn’t have blown down would have paid for themselves many times over.

Vendors can’t be choosers
I figured that since we were running the garage sale, we could do it on our terms. Consequently, I set it to run only one day, insisted on no early birds, and declared all prices final. This simply didn’t work. Maybe it works if you have a ton of traffic and people are fighting each other to buy your used coasters, but it’s no good if you live in the woods. We added a second day, lifted the “no haggling” policy, and got more flexible. After all, our goal wasn’t to run a business, but to get rid of some stuff and get a small amount of money back for it.

Free advertising is good
One place I think we made good decisions was in advertising. We posted the sale on Craigslist with a list of many of the kinds of items we were selling (and later, some pictures); on Facebook; and on our local Front Porch Forum ( Ads in local papers would have been prohibitively expensive, and offhand I don’t know of any other sites that would have gotten the word out well–though if you know of any, please mention them in comments.

Bargaining rules
No one in my family is an enthusiastic haggler, so I set some bargaining rules to make bargaining more comfortable for me. People who were buying multiple things could get more slack than people buying a few things. Things that I was pretty sure I could sell for more on eBay if I were willing to take the trouble weren’t very negotiable. We had set prices pretty low from the beginning, so I didn’t take less than about 80% of the asking price most of the time, and I never lowered the price twice. I also didn’t take less money than the sale was worth. What I mean is, if someone had tried to talk me down on a 25 cent item, I would have waved them away: at that point, I’d rather donate the item than get into a detailed discussion over ten or fifteen cents.

Three cash boxes
We actually had three groups of people benefiting from sales: 1) the adults in the household; 2) my son; and 3) our two girls. In order to keep things non-confusing, we had three cash boxes, and we put the money in those as it came in. I wouldn’t have wanted to try reconstructing sales after the fact or otherwise figuring out how to divide the money.

All in all, the sale did its job. It did move a number of things we wanted to get rid of and got them to useful new lives in other people’s homes, which is great. It didn’t get rid of a lot of the items we had on offer, but we now have tried and failed to sell those items, and we can give them away knowing that we’re not tossing out easy money. (Besides, giving things away to good people or organizations has its own rewards.) To put it another way, having the garage sale gave us the green light to get rid of everything that was left at the end, and it’s hard to put a high enough value on decluttering your life.

Photo by sea turtle

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The Help: Kathryn Stockett Achieves Resounding Success After Years of Rejection


Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, has become my new favorite example of the power of persistence. She certainly hasn’t made me forget about Jo Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before finding a home at Bloomsbury, but Rowling got representation from the second agent she tried, while Stockett reportedly got at least 45 rejections for The Help before even finding an agent (see this article for a bit more on that).

If you don’t happen to be involved with publishing, I should explain that even after an author finds an agent, the agent then has to submit the book to publishers, so even finding an agent can be a long way away from getting a book published.

The Help is an engrossing, insightful novel about black maids and their white employers in the American South in the early 1960’s. I finished reading it (actually, listening to the audio book, which is very well performed) the other day, and it has taken its place among my favorite novels for its involving story, entertaining style, and heart. As you may know, Stockett’s novel has been made into a hugely successful movie and has sold millions of copies. After reading it, I found myself hoping that it had to do with direct experience, that Stockett was one of the children who were raised by the kinds of maids we get to know in the book. This turns out to be true, although Stockett is about a decade younger than the children in her novel.

Try, Improve, Try Again
Flying in the face of Robert Heinlein’s famous advice (“You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”), which reportedly even Heinlein himself didn’t quite follow, Stockett kept making changes and improving her manuscript as she received rejection after rejection, though she doesn’t seem to have been at all immune to the painful process of having a work you’ve slaved away on repeatedly turned down and spoken ill of. This brings to mind Harper Lee’s process with To Kill a Mockingbird: she edited that novel over a long, laborious period with her editor, Tay Hohoff. While we know that there are great successes that come out more or less great from the beginning, others, clearly, are crafted over time.

It’s tempting to think that when many agents or publishers reject a book that later becomes successful, that they’re simply foolish or short-sighted. This can certainly be the case, as with the book publishers who said children would never read a book as long as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or the editor who told Emily Dickinson that her poems were “generally devoid of true poetical qualities.” Sometimes, though, these people are just being truthful about work that doesn’t fit for them, or are responding to something that isn’t yet fully realized, a diamond in the rough that as far as the rejecting party knows may never really be cut to its proper shape.

Does persistence always pay off?
So should we take from this that, like Stockett, all we have to do is to hang in there, keep trying, and success will eventually come? I would suggest that the complete answer to that is “Yes and no.” Persistence seems to be a very important quality to have if we want to be successful at anything great. Actually, maybe “persistence” doesn’t quite cover it. Maybe the word I’m looking for is devotion, when we don’t simply show up, but put our whole selves into our efforts.

With that said, persistence alone isn’t necessarily going to get us anywhere. The Help is reportedly Stockett’s first novel, but she has a background in writing and editing, and most of the published novelists I know wrote at least one other novel or a lot of short stories (sometimes both) before selling a book.

Diamond in the rough or practice project?
So it is possible to stick with a project too long. With that said, I’m not sure it’s possible for us to stick with projects we really believe in, profoundly, for too long. Practice is essential to developing great skill, and realistically, some of the projects on which we set all of our hopes will eventually turn out to have been practice projects: practice books, practice jobs … even practice relationships.

Other projects need improvement. There’s no such thing as practice parenting if real kids are involved, so despite any past mistakes, all we can hope to do with parenting is to improve ourselves and do the best we can going forward. Some books just need a lot of editing or rewriting. Some businesses need a new direction to survive or thrive.

How do we tell the difference? That’s the hardest part, of course, but the keys seem to be

1) We are most successful when we pursue goals we’re passionate about
2) Failure and rejection are not, in themselves, evidence that we’re on the wrong track
3) If we continue backing one specific project or effort, we need to be open to improving it if the opportunity presents itself, and
4) Experience and insight sometimes show us that a previous attempt is no longer worth pursuing.

That last point is tricky, but the core of it is keeping in touch with our passion for our work. If that passion has died away because we come to see that we can do more or better, than that’s all right: it may be time to start a new project. If we’ve simply been worn down by not achieving what we had hoped for, though, the danger is of giving up too soon. Success is sometimes a long road, but personally, I’m inspired by the example of people who, like Stockett, have followed it to its end however long that takes.

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Making It All About Just One Thing


In a post this past weekend (“Something Completely Different: a New Direction for the Willpower Engine and ReidWrite“), I talked about the new focus I’ve pulled together for my writing and this site. What I’m finding as I pursue it is that it’s creating a natural unification of efforts in my life, and this unification is making my life easier, my mind clearer, and my efforts more useful.

Just one goal
I’ve always been bad at following my own advice to have only one major goal at a time. This isn’t because I have any doubt whether it’s a good idea: it is. It’s just because when I tried to narrow things down to one goal, what I would find was that I got down to multiple goals that were each so important to me that I couldn’t bring myself to discard any of them; the best I could do was to put some on the back burner.

I want to be clear here that when I say “goals,” I’m talking specifically about goals for doing new things that I’m not already achieving, goals that need extra time, attention, and focus. Splitting those scarce resources among multiple goals isn’t effective, because it’s hard enough to help ourselves change in just one way at a time; more than one way is usually overwhelming.

The joy of just one thing
But recently, I resolved to take all of the research I’ve done into the psychology of habits and self-motivation and build a novel out of it that will help people experience how to actually change their lives. It’s a tricky job despite the very great success of some books that have tried similar kinds of challenges, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ishmael, Eat, Pray, Love (though of course that’s a memoir rather than a novel), and even Ecotopia. It seems easy to me to stumble by either preaching–which loses the reader; or by not bringing in the really useful information–which loses the point. Still, I was never the guy who liked taking the easy jobs.

What’s particularly joyful for me about this whole process is that I’m able to single-mindedly pursue one project without the distractions of a lot of other projects, even though there are innumerable little jobs that are part of that project. At the moment, while of course my efforts go into other important things on a daily basis, when I have time to think about or work toward something big and expansive, I know exactly what that thing is: it’s this novel. That kind of one-project focus is a rare and miraculous thing for me.

It’s a little bit like a handy solution to a fiction writing problem, when you find that two characters can be mashed together into one and that this adds a burst of new possibilities and payoffs. Hey, the thief could also be the guide! you say. Suddenly everything is easier.

Unifying goals turns into unifying sites
Interestingly, unifying my focus also is resulting in a unification of my Web sites. I had already realized that I wanted to bring together my psychology of habits blog and my writing blog: my original writing blog at is getting folded into my original willpower blog at . But I realized today what the name of the new compounded site should be, and what else it should include: this site will become the new, and the out-of-date writing site I have by that name is getting updated and folded into this site as well. It’s interesting to me how it all seems to be coming together.

Photo by interestsarefree

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