One of my favorite quotes when I was a career counselor was, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. And then there was this well-known literary exchange: Alice: “Cheshire Cat, which way should I go from here?” Cheshire Cat: “That depends on where you want to go.”
Given that each of these quotes underscores the importance of having a direction in mind before you undertake a journey, you may be surprised that other than my four-year old post, “Time Management for Downsizers,” my own approach to slow-downsizing downplays what are called SMART goals—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
So, why am I bringing up the subject now? I’ve thought about that in recent weeks since I read Matt Paxton’s book, Keep the Memories Lose the Stuff. Chapter 2, “Define the Finish Line,” urges downsizers to be specific about the place they intend to live, including its size and configuration. My guess is that Paxton’s clients also have a much shorter timeline for their decision-making than my own slow-downsizing approach implies.
Does that mean we slow-downsizers should be operating in a goal-free zone? The short answer is not exactly. As I argued in my time management post, it’s good to have a sense of purpose to our downsizing—for a possible move to a smaller place, to live more simply, to avoid passing on the task to other people in the future (“death cleaning”), or all of these.
But a purpose isn’t the same as a goal. The specifics do count when it comes to downsizing, and they do help to define the overall project. John and I are clear on where we are going: moving from a house with an attic, basement, and garage to a two-bedroom apartment with a couple of good size closets and maybe a storage cage. We want to live more simply without sacrificing our avocations, the aesthetics we value, or the memories that make up our life’s narratives.
This starting point provides the parameters for our downsizing. I would argue that we define explicit goals as we undertake each specific task, and that during that task, as we see how much time it takes and what we are left with, we may come to a new understanding of what’s important to us.
For example, in going through the entertainment memorabilia he had collected over the years (the programs, ticket stubs, reviews, etc.), John realized that what was meaningful to him was reliving as fully as he could those events by creating a memory document of what he saw and how he felt about it. He then no longer needed the paper reminders. Although he initially tackled this project without a specific goal, his objectives emerged as he reacted to the information in front of him. It’s a time-consuming task, and he may need to modify his approach, but at least he has gained sense of direction. The only aspect of the SMART goal that is missing for him is the deadline.
But what about outlining each major type of object of our downsizing project—the books, the furniture, the knick-knacks, the artwork, the memorabilia, the clothing and accessories, the practical household goods--and setting specific goals for those that live up to our vision so that we don’t feel overwhelmed? Marie Kondo takes this approach. Or, alternatively, we could go room by room as some other downsizing experts advocate?
I don’t believe there is a one size fits all. What will work for you and keep you motivated? As I review my own journey, I started with low-hanging fruit (shredding old work papers), was moved by necessity (house renovation projects), and then focused on the basement, tackling each file drawer and tub (first culling, before eliminating as much as I could). In November of 2021, I decided to make a specific time-bound list of goals. Guess what? I successfully completed a few items on the list, am just getting around (at the end of March) to one item and have managed only to buy some supplies I needed for another. The list gave me some impetus but was overly ambitious.
Slow downsizing gives you wiggle room to dive in to what calls out to you without being hemmed In by goals that might feel too demanding. Rather than treating each type of item or room as one that you must see through to completion before moving on, you can first choose to create some order out of your possible chaos and then do some culling to reduce the overall amount. You can skip around. But if you find yourself avoiding all decluttering tasks, then you may need to set a few manageable and specific timebound goals from the get-go, rather than letting these evolve. Punch a few holes in the daunting project of downsizing—what I refer to as the “swiss cheese” method.
As you make progress and know what you are dealing with, you will achieve some clarity that will give more shape to your overall downsizing project. That might be the point to articulate some SMART goals.
The two big takeaways of today’s post are: 1) BE CLEAR ABOUT WHY YOUR ARE DOWNSIZING and then 2) DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU to keep you moving in the right direction. Just ask Alice.