​How to Stop being a Completist

How do you know when it's time to stop being a completist? For me, the moment came in the mid-1990s, when I saw the above Doctor Who underpants for sale in a London shop — marked "ONLY WORN ONCE, NEVER WASHED." But everybody hits a wall sooner or later. Here's how to let go of needing to have a complete set.

At its root, the completist impulse is about feeling as though there's no point in collecting something unless you have every single item. Whether it's records, books, comics, toys, memorabilia or something else, the collection isn't worth having unless you have every item that belongs in the set. A set of N-1 is as worthless as an empty set.

Which is patently untrue — but also increasingly impossible to maintain. Even in the 1990s, you couldn't really hope to own every piece of Doctor Who memorabilia, including all of the 1960s flood of Dalek toys and the massive number of police boxes. And good luck keeping up with the massive surge in Who tcotchkes since the show came back in 2005.

But even if your form of completism consists of "owning every issue of a particular comic," or "owning the complete run of Philip K. Dick paperback first editions," you're still looking at major challenges of both storage space and expenditure. At some point, you start to run out of places to put everything, and the last stray bits are always the most expensive.

And with anything toy-related, it's always the worst — because there are always variant figures, and you have to keep them in the box, and they take up insane amounts of space.

So assuming you want to stop being a completist, how do you pull this off?

The main thing, it seems to me, is to answer the question: Is it worth collecting something if you don't have the complete set? And that, in turn, means finding other reasons why you might be collecting something beyond merely achieving some metaphysical sense of completion because you have all of the kinds.

There are plenty of reasons you would collect stuff. You could collect toys because you want to play with them — or because you like displaying them in a cool way. Likewise, you could keep the books that you've read and enjoyed the most, or maintain a stash of the most important comics.

One approach is to be selective, rather than comprehensive — collect only the things that are meaningful to you, personally. Instead of having every X-Men figure, collect the figures of your favorite X-character. Have a wall of Kitty Prydes. Pick the five or six action figures that express your personality, and display them on your mantelpiece.

Which reminds me — you can also treat it like interior décor. When I pared my action figures down to just a tiny handful, I suddenly gained the freedom to place them in cool poses on my desk, instead of having boxes and boxes. Even if you want to keep them in their original packaging, you can display them in awesome ways if each piece is individually meaningful or awesome.

And that's really the bottom line of not being a completist — it means doing more to cherish each individual piece in your collection, instead of only prizing the collection as a whole. That Gorn figure can be like a friendly totem, a boon companion in your hours of toil.

If anything, rejecting the completist impulse might make your collection more meaningful, not less. Because if you're always waiting for the far-off day when you finally have every single item in a category, you won't be spending as much time enjoying the collection you actually have. And a collection that's flawed (in the sense of not having everything) opens up more possibilities for enjoyment than one you have to keep pristine.

So don't fall prey to the need to own that one pair of previously worn, never washed Tom Baker trunks. You can cherish your collection even more if it's incomplete.