Exactly five years and 70 posts ago (not counting this one), I started this blog on slow downsizing. With the help of the pandemic (one good thing to come of it), these last few years have been especially active ones as I’ve had more time to devote to this task. I often reflect on what I’ve learned, but I thought I would commemorate this occasion by doing a “meta-reflection” and share my biggest insights after more than eight years of pruning through, curating, donating, gifting, selling, preserving, shredding, recycling, shredding, or just tossing items. You may have read these here or heard about them elsewhere, and they are personal to me, but consider them my “best of” list.
Identify your big goal. Why are you downsizing? To move to a smaller space? To live life more simply? To stay in charge of what happens to your things? To avoid passing on the task to others? What does your goal imply for downsizing priorities? How will this big goal keep you on task?
Start with low-hanging fruit to motivate yourself. Low hanging fruit are those with low emotional content, not requiring agonizing decision-making. After I retired, mine were my work documents, professional journals, and books related to my profession. As someone who was self-employed for 18 years in a paper-intense business, I had file boxes and drawers of papers just waiting to be shredded. I didn’t need them anymore, nor did anyone else. Because of the quantity of material I was able to part with, I was able to see the results. For you, these low hanging fruit may be excessive numbers of kitchen items, the kids’ broken toys, clothes that no longer fit or are not flattering. Key: Easy to choose, take up space, and easy to divest yourself of, through tossing, recycling, donating.
Scope out the job. Once you’ve motivated yourself by seeing some results, now is the time to do a walk-through of your spaces and take an assessment of what you have and what you need to do. What categories of items do you have, and where are they? Are there any more low-hanging fruit? I’m a list-maker, so I maintain a list of what I need to do, and I revise it regularly.
Decide on the absolute keepers. In short, what will need to be pried from your cold, dead body? Think about why an item is a keeper The things that bring you “joy” (thank you, Marie Kondo) become your starting point. Your list may be too long at first. That’s fine. Can you change your mind? Of course. You probably will. But write your list down and revise as needed.
Concentrate on similar items, not spaces in your home. You want to get to know your like items—whether these are your photos, your clothes, your travel souvenirs, your books, your vinyl record collection, your childhood mementoes, etc. Only by understanding the extent and full nature of your collections can you start to make decisions about how to tackle them. Different types of items require different approaches. However, spaces that aren’t part of your daily living, such as attics and basements, may be the holding ground for whole collections of like items, and thus, going through these collections does help to clear those spaces, as I found. Plus, some collections are so large that breaking up the task may be the only way to stay sane.
Cull, cull again, and cull some more. One of the upsides of slow downsizing is the opportunity to handle an item more than once. It goes against everything I ever learned about time management, but it works here. By reducing the size of a group of like items you will find you’ve forgotten about most of what you part with. Each smaller group provides another opportunity to cull again. The secret is to leave time between the culling—months, or years if you have these. With each culling, try to make some inroads. One or two books out of 1000 or even 100 books is not a cull.
Let it sit. If in doubt about some items you’ve culled, put them aside in a designated space for a while. But don’t forget to return to them to make a final decision—keep or discard. I find I need to do that with clothes. Inevitably, after a clothes cull, I find a couple of items about which I’ve changed my mind. That reduces regrets. Again, it’s another great advantage of slow-downsizing.
Take a photo, make a list. As the queen of savers, I find it easier to part with things that are important to me when I have some record of them. Maybe I’ll never look at the photos or read the lists, but I know I have them as my safety net, and they don't take up space. The secret here is to be discriminating about what you photograph or make lists of. Not everything is equally important or emotionally resonant.
Preserve the stories. I believe that many of the downsizing experts have it right with this one. It’s often the story behind an item that imbues it with meaning not the item itself. Capture these in any way that suits you—brief descriptions, scrapbook pages, videos. Get creative! I’ve shared several ways John and I have done this, and I will continue to do so.
Focus on donating rather than making money. Donating is easy and will give you great satisfaction. Selling is difficult and can bring disappointment. You can’t find a buyer; you can’t get what you think an item is worth. Remember that most of your stuff (with some exceptions) isn’t worth that much in the marketplace regardless of what you paid for it or what it means to you. Lots of people are downsizing, and the market is overloaded. An online or in-store merchant may be asking $25 for that Beatle album you own, but unless you sell directly to an individual buyer (not a dealer), you aren’t likely to get anything like that. (Note: I’ve sold several groups of records to different dealers, and it’s barely been worth the effort. More recently, I felt much better about donating a multi-boxed set of records to an individual who wanted them.) If an item has some meaning to you, find an individual or a worthwhile place to donate it to. I use our local free-cycle site a lot, and I also donate items to arts organizations holding benefits.
Be selective about what you try to sell. However, there is a penny or two to be made for those who want to take the time or need the cash. But rather than try to make money on everything, find out what can sell for enough money that is worth your while and then do your research. My sweet spots were mid-century modern furniture, vintage clothing, household decorative items, selected ephemera, and art. I try to sell groups of items outright as much as possible rather than through consignment or piecemeal.
Reframe the problem. If you find you are stuck or being overly compulsive (a common trait in those of us who are savers), try to think about your tasks in a new way. John reframed his goal as getting things out of the house. Consequently, he realized he needed to spend less time on cataloguing each job/photo from his work life and to save what he did save in as concise a way as possible.
Embrace help. There are people out there who help others downsize for a living. It’s a big field these days. What are your roadblocks in downsizing? Find someone who can help address those and move you to another level. The results from my professional downsizer’s finding me contacts for selling more than paid their fees. Alternatively, maybe a downsizing support group will keep you on track. Start one if none exists in your area. Or enlist a friend who may be in the same boat.
Find your rhythm. We all have different ways of tackling projects. Some of us are hares and others are tortoises. Although I tend to move quickly and like to get things done, with downsizing, I find I am better off just plodding along at a steady pace so I don’t lose my momentum. You may prefer to work in bursts, or maybe that’s all your schedule will allow. Do whatever works to move in the direction you want to go. You may need to experiment.
Keep track. If you task is as big as mine was, especially if a lot of stuff is hidden away and doesn’t qualify as clutter, you may not appreciate the progress you are making. I keep a diary of what I do, and I also check things off my list (see Scope out the Job).
Be kind to yourself. Slow downsizing will have its high and low moments. You will feel discouraged, regretful, overwhelmed, and bored, as well as relieved, satisfied, and excited (at discovering a lost treasure, for example). Step back when you need to and take a break. Take a walk to sort through a problem. Reward yourself for your follow through.
And always remember to savor the journey!